What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by the state which governs people’s conduct and is enforced by mechanisms that can impose sanctions. The principal functions of law are to keep the peace and maintain social stability, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, ensure a fair and open marketplace, and promote social justice. Whether a nation’s laws are effective at these functions is, in large part, a function of the political structure and the military power of a country. The political-legal environment varies greatly from country to country, with dictatorial regimes often failing to fulfill many of these roles.

Some countries, such as the United States, employ a common law system, in which legal rules are based on the decisions of judges on cases that have come before them, rather than on legislative statutes. This “doctrine of precedent” allows the decisions of higher courts to bind lower ones, in order to ensure consistency in judgments and to provide a clear path for future adjudicators to follow. In contrast, some nations such as Japan use a civil law system, in which the legislation explicitly sets out the rules for judges to follow in making decisions.

In addition, some nations have a religious basis for their law. These are typically based on the teachings of a faith, and include Jewish Halakha, Islamic Shari’ah, and Christian canon law.