What Is Law?

Law is a set of social rules created by a government and enforced by it. It is a complex issue, and people have many different ideas about what law is.

Generally, laws are written by legislators, resulting in statutes; imposed by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges, resulting in case law. Private individuals may also create binding legal contracts through arbitration. Laws are used to regulate behaviour, such as driving safely, not smoking and paying taxes. They are also used to ensure that private companies doing public services like water, electricity and gas fulfil social responsibilities.

Legal systems have been reshaped by the growth of state power in recent times. Whether it is the police or the civil service, modern governments have the power to interfere with people’s daily lives in ways that were not envisaged by Locke, Montesquieu or Max Weber. These new powers require a new perspective on what law is and how it should be formulated.

Some legal systems are explicitly based on religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia which have further been elaborated through interpretation (Qiyas), Ijma and consensus (Ummah). Other legal systems use an approach to law that is less anchored to specific texts, but focuses on human nature and what is fair and reasonable. This type of law is often referred to as common law.