What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules, regulations and guidelines enforced by a governing authority to govern human behavior and ensure justice. Laws can be state-enforced, resulting in statutes and regulations; private laws, affecting contracts, property, torts/delicts and other personal legal disputes; or legal norms, which are international legal standards established by the ICAO and the International Civil Aviation Organization, among others.

The word ‘law’ is derived from the Latin verb “legere”, meaning to lay down or establish. Law is a complex concept, with its precise definition a matter of long-standing debate and discussion.

Many writers have defined the term in different ways, with some using it to describe a set of rules for the behaviour of people within a society, while others use it to refer to the specific activities of government and its policing powers. It is generally agreed that law exists to control and regulate behaviour, and that it is a coercive power. It is also often stated that law shapes politics, economics and history in a variety of ways.

One of the earliest theories of law was proposed by Roscoe Pound, who described it as a tool for social engineering that seeks to satisfy both social wants and ethical values. Law is a means of controlling human behavior by setting standards for desirable behaviour, proclaiming symbolic expressions of communal values and resolving disputes about facts and interpretation. It can also be used to punish deviant behavior.

Other authors, such as Max Weber and the sociologists who have subsequently followed him, have reshaped thinking on law’s normative role in society. Their argument was that law is a force for moral change by its ability to create the conditions whereby a people may choose to act differently, and thus to avoid the dangers of war and poverty.

In the modern world, the scope of law extends far beyond these traditional functions. Immigration law covers the rights of foreigners to live and work in a nation-state that is not their own, while family law concerns divorce proceedings, custody of children, and property and money issues. Biolaw is the practice of incorporating biosciences into law, while forensic science uses legal principles to solve crime cases.

Law is a universal phenomenon, but it is not always the same across societies. It is not present in hunter-gatherer societies or pastoral or horticultural societies, where the social life of humans was regulated mainly by custom and tradition. Laws are largely a product of the development of agriculture and urbanisation, when it became possible to organize large groups of people in larger communities. The development of legal systems to govern these communities was aided by the need for people to be able to rely on the recognition and enforcement of laws in order to conduct their everyday lives. This led to the emergence of the concept of a state. This in turn prompted the development of laws to govern the lives of ordinary citizens, and to ensure that they were not exploited by a dominant class of landowners and traders.