What Is Law?

The law is a body of rules that governs the conduct of people and organizations in society. It imposes obligations and prohibitions on members of society, and is enforced by a state or other controlling authority. It is a central element of many social systems, and is important in promoting peace and dissuading violence. Law is also a key source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis.

A fundamental issue in the study of law is the extent to which a state can be held accountable for its actions under the law. This topic has a rich tradition of debate that starts with Aristotle, continues through the medieval thinkers and into the modern era, with the work of Montesquieu, Locke and other Enlightenment writers. Modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over the lives of ordinary citizens raises particular problems for accountability that earlier writers did not anticipate.

Law is a complex subject, and its scope encompasses many different kinds of rules. Examples include criminal, civil and commercial laws. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to society, and can be punished by imprisonment or fines. Civil law involves the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or entities. Commercial law includes contracts, agreements and other documentation relating to business activities. Regulation laws deal with public services and utilities like energy, water and telecoms, and impose varying degrees of social responsibility on private companies that do these jobs.