What Is Law?

Law is the set of rules that social or governmental institutions create and enforce to regulate behavior. It is often viewed as both an art and a science, although the precise nature of law is subject to much debate. Laws may be made to control such activities as traffic and property ownership, to punish criminals, and to protect citizens. Laws are also used to establish standards, maintain order, resolve conflicts, and encourage social change. The laws of a particular country can vary widely from one another, and some legal systems are more effective than others at serving their intended purposes.

A definition of law that is both scientific in the sense that it predicts a variable, namely human behavior, and forward looking is the approach advocated by Sherlock Holmes. This definition is in contrast to the traditional prescriptive and backward looking definition of law as a set of rules imposed on an unwilling populace.

An important part of law is the process of finding out what actually happens in a particular case. This is a form of inquiry that has its roots in the ancient practice of trial by ordeal, where people accused of crimes would face a jury of their peers. Ultimately, the judge would make a decision regarding guilt or innocence. The court’s judgment could then be appealed to a higher authority, such as the state or federal courts.

The legal system is designed to ensure that every person has an equal opportunity to be heard and treated fairly in a court of law. This is accomplished through the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. This arrangement prevents one individual from being able to dominate the system and dictate his or her will.

Another important role of the law is to protect individuals against tyranny. Historically, many countries have created governments that oppress minorities or political opponents. A society that allows its government to do so can be considered a police state. Some laws are designed to counter this threat by limiting the power of the government and protecting individual rights.

Contract law, a major branch of law, regulates agreements between two or more parties to exchange goods, services, or anything else that has value. It defines the rights and duties of participants in a transaction, establishes expectations, measures damages in the event of breach, and provides for dispute resolution. Property law, another major branch of law, defines the right and duties of individuals toward their tangible assets (e.g., land and buildings) and intangible assets, such as bank accounts and shares of stock.

When someone files a lawsuit against another person, he or she is called the plaintiff. A court decides whether the plaintiff has a valid claim, and if it does, the court issues a judgment or verdict. The defendant can request a review of the judgment or verdict by requesting an appeal. The court that hears the appeal is known as an appellate court.