What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that a society or government creates to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. In general, it is understood to be a set of rules that govern behavior and that are enforced by the state.

The principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Different legal systems serve these functions differently. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it may also oppress minorities and retard social change. In contrast, a democracy may promote justice and equality while providing for orderly political change.

Some laws are considered binding and must be followed, whereas others are considered nonbinding or influential. The rules that dictate how a court should conduct a trial are called the law of evidence, and there are also separate sets of law for criminal, civil, bankruptcy, and appellate proceedings. A judicial decision that establishes precedent is binding on courts hearing similar cases and may be used by lawyers in their arguments.

A judge or jury can cite precedent, but the actual decision of the court is usually made by a group of judges (or sometimes an entire bench) who hear the case and decide it. Such a court session is called en banc. Law clerks or staff attorneys assist judges in their research and drafting of opinions. A legal document that is a transcript of testimony or other verbal communication in a court proceeding is called a docket.