What is Law?

Law is a set of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is the subject of ongoing debate. The principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights.

In general, laws are enforceable by sanctions such as fines and imprisonment. However, the term can also refer to a body of behavioural rules that are binding on an individual without sanction, such as the rules of your parents’ house or natural laws of self-preservation.

Most people live with a variety of laws, ranging from simple instructions like “eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day” to complex contracts, mortgages and statutory forms. The field of law is so broad that it is divided into numerous branches, or areas of expertise.

For example, contracts are regulated by contract law, while property law defines individuals’ rights and duties toward tangible personal possessions, including land (real estate) and other objects, such as computers and cars. The law of real estate is the oldest branch of the legal system, with its origins in the feudal law of ownership, inheritance and land tenure, and a range of statutory systems for registering titles, covenants, easements and other restrictions.

The law of torts, or civil wrongs, defines people’s right to compensation for damage to their person or belongings resulting from the negligence or malicious intent of others, or in cases such as defamation. Criminal law relates to offences against the state, such as murder or fraud.

Legislation can be made by a group legislature or a single legislator, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judicial decisions, which are then referred to as case law. Judicial decision-making is governed by the principle of stare decisis, which states that a judge’s decision in a particular case is binding on future judges, or at least should not be overturned.

The principles of a society are the foundation for its laws, and the laws themselves are shaped by social and historical circumstances. Political-legal authority varies from nation to nation, and the power of certain regimes to oppress minorities or impose an unpopular status quo has reshaped thinking about the nature of laws. However, the principle of democracy and the aspiration for greater rights and protections for citizens remains a major feature of law.

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