What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules that social or governmental institutions create and enforce to regulate behavior. It is often enforced by penalties.

It encompasses many fields of study and practice. Contract law lays out the terms of agreements that people make for goods and services, including everything from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible possessions—real estate, including land and buildings, and personal property (movable objects like computers and cars, as well as intangible assets such as bank accounts and shares of stock). It also covers intellectual property rights, trusts and commercial law. Criminal law relates to offenses against society or the state, from breaking into a house at night to publishing false information about someone. It is enforced by the state through its policing, courts and prisons.

The precise definition of law is a matter of longstanding debate. Some academics argue that laws are normative—that they prescribe how people ought to behave—while others contend that they are descriptive, relating to the causal relationships between events. A third approach takes into account both normative and descriptive aspects of laws. This approach makes it possible for legal scholars to use law to understand and predict the outcomes of specific cases. It is also useful for businesses to make informed decisions about the risks and rewards of specific business transactions. It is also useful in determining how best to manage public services and utilities, such as water, energy and gas.