What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise contents remain a matter of long-standing debate. Nonetheless, laws can serve a variety of purposes: keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights and freedoms, and allowing for orderly social change. Some legal systems are better suited to serving these purposes than others.

Law can be established by legislative statutes, regulations issued by the executive branch, or case decisions decided by judges under the doctrine of stare decisis. Private individuals can also create legal contracts. These are often legally binding.

While there are many different legal traditions, most of them have certain common features. For example, they are generally understood to be based on some form of natural justice, a concept that emphasizes fairness, equality, and community values. They are also generally seen to provide for open government, accessible and impartial justice, and core human, property, and criminal rights.

Despite these commonalities, there are great variations in the way that legal systems develop from country to country and even within a single nation. Many legal systems combine elements of common law, civil law, and religious or customary law to produce a hybrid system.

Terrorism cases, for example, are handled in a wide range of ways. In some countries, they are heard in special courts that focus on these crimes; in other nations, they are handled by courts that have jurisdiction over all criminal cases.