Law is a system of rules and practices that a society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term is also used to refer to the discipline and profession that studies these rules.
There is a large variety of views about the nature and significance of law. Some see it as a necessary aspect of human life, ensuring that people receive the benefits of collective endeavours and do not harm others in the process. Others see it as a kind of power, able to coerce behaviour in various ways, but not necessarily always for the benefit of everyone involved. Still others regard it as a way to solve recurrent coordination problems, to proclaim symbolic expressions of community values or to resolve disputes about facts.
The most widespread view is that law is a system of rules enacted by a state or some other authority with the power to enforce them. This power is typically backed by the threat of sanctions, and the laws are usually designed to promote some social good. This is the view known as legal positivism.
In contrast, some scholars view law as a kind of natural order that exists independently of human creation and can be understood in terms of innate human needs or instincts. These scholars are called natural law theorists. They believe that there are certain principles that underlie all legal systems, and that these principles can be derived from studying the behaviour of humans in different contexts. They believe that, in particular, natural law reflects the concept of fairness and justice, which is a universal value.
Whether or not the natural law idea has any merit, there is no doubt that the main function of law is to provide a framework for social control and direction. Without it, individuals might behave in ways that harm themselves or others, and they would be at the mercy of those who could coerce them to change their behaviour. This explains why most societies have developed some sort of legal system.
Legal systems can differ significantly between countries, reflecting a range of social and cultural influences. For example, contracts and property laws may be very different across societies. Contract law relates to people’s agreements to exchange goods or services, while property laws set out the rights and duties of owners of tangible possessions, from houses and cars to books and shares.
In common law systems, decisions by courts are recognised as law on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. The doctrine of stare decisis is an important feature of this type of system, whereby decisions by higher courts bind lower ones to ensure that similar cases reach similar results. In contrast, in civil law systems legislative statutes are typically more detailed and judicial decisions less so.