What Is Law?

A system of rules a government or community creates to regulate behavior, handle crimes, and make decisions about business relationships and other social issues. It’s enforced through a controlling authority, such as the police or the courts. A law can be written or unwritten, formal or informal.

The main functions of law are to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain the status quo, (3) protect minorities against majorities, (4) promote social justice and (5) enable orderly social change. But governments impose laws for different reasons, and some nations have more trouble serving these functions than others (e.g., Burma or Zimbabwe under dictatorships).

Legal systems vary from nation to nation. For example, in common law countries, judicial decisions are recognized as “law” on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. In such a system, judges follow the precedent set by previous court cases in making decisions on new cases. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis.

Other kinds of law include family, intellectual property, aviation and commercial law. Family law concerns marriage, divorce proceedings and the rights of children. Aviation law covers all national regulations and standards that a pilot must adhere to when flying, including safety and environmental protection. Commercial law involves laws governing business and money transactions. Labor law focuses on the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, involving such issues as workplace safety, health and a minimum wage.