What Is Law?


Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. It relates to human rights, the protection of minorities against majorities and to orderly social change. It is the basis for many academic fields, including legal history, philosophy and economic analysis and raises questions about equality, fairness and justice.

It also involves specific actions and relationships: contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, such as the purchase of a bus ticket or shares in a company; intellectual property law sets out people’s rights to their own creations like music, literature, art or software, whether it be copyright, patent or trademark; insurance law protects the financial security of companies and their customers through contracts, and trust law outlines the rules on how money is saved and invested; tort law covers claims for compensation when someone else’s behaviour damages people or their possessions. Banking and finance laws set minimum capital levels for banks and rules about best practice for investment; regulatory law governs public utilities, such as electricity, gas and water, and ensures that private companies taking over management of public services are bound by a degree of social responsibility.

Law is a complex matter and its nature is the subject of intense debate. John Austin’s utilitarian answer is that it comprises commandments, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience; natural lawyers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas argue that law reflects a moral and unchanging “law of nature”. Holmes’ ontological understanding of law sees it as a dynamic process which depends on the shape of the physical world and on humans and their minds: the act of observers assigning true or false values to mathematically undecidable propositions forms experience, which in turn defines law.