What Is Law?


Law is the discipline and profession that defines rules for behaviour within a society and enforces them. It covers a wide range of subject areas, involving many different groups of people. These are grouped for convenience into three broad categories, though the subjects often intertwine and overlap.

Contract law regulates the exchange of goods and services, including contracts for the rental or purchase of property or the sale or hiring of vehicles. Property law covers ownership and rights to tangible property such as land and buildings, and intangible property such as shares. Administrative law deals with the rules of government, notably that of courts and parliaments. This also includes rules governing the activities of public corporations, such as water companies.

Criminal law covers the punishment of crimes, while civil law covers the rights and obligations of citizens in relation to each other. It also lays out the procedure that must be followed by a court when it deals with a case. Evidence law outlines which materials may be used in courts.

The nature of law is controversial, with many competing definitions. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote that it is “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience”. Natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas argue that law reflects essentially moral and unchanging laws of nature. Max Weber reshaped thinking on the extension of state power, arguing that a modern military and police force poses challenges to accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have envisaged.

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