What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules that a community recognizes as binding on its members and enforced by sanctions issued by a controlling authority. It encompasses the legal system as a whole, including its structures, institutions, and procedures; individual branches, such as contract or property; and specific fields, such as family or criminal law. Law also includes legal philosophy and the various schools of thought that characterize different philosophies about law.

Law may serve a variety of purposes: it can keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities from majorities, promote social justice, or provide a framework for orderly social change. A functioning legal system also reflects the values of society and ensures that all people are treated fairly. For example, contract law governs agreements between people to exchange goods or services for money. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible assets, such as land or buildings. And civil law addresses disputes between individuals or corporations and embodies basic ethical norms such as promise-keeping and not harming others.

The sources of law vary from country to country, but the United States relies primarily on statutes and case law to establish legal principles. Government agencies, such as the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations, propose laws, and if a majority of legislators agree on a bill, it is sent to the president (or, in some cases, to a governor acting as president for a state) for signature.