What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules, standards or principles enforced by a sovereign power in order to govern its citizens. It has four main functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The term may also refer to a specific area of law such as contracts, property or criminal law.

According to Roscoe Pound, “law is predominantly a means of social control – it serves the purposes of society which it regulates.” This definition reflects an important insight, that the function of law is coercive. The apex of law is the legislative stage, which produces the laws that are enforceable by courts and police. The judiciary is therefore more important than the legislator in terms of ensuring that the law is complied with.

A lawful society requires a system of legal rules that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. This is called the Rule of Law and it ensures that all people, including those in public institutions, are held to the same standards and are protected against official arbitrariness.

Other important aspects of law include its clarity and accessibility. It should be easily understood and internalized by ordinary people as a framework for their plans and expectations and for settling disputes with others. It should also be reasonably stable over time so that individuals can plan their activities with reasonable confidence about the legal consequences. These features are reflected in areas of law such as contract law, civil procedure, tort law and evidence law.