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What is Law?

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The Law, as a system of rules enforced by a social or governmental institution, governs human relationships and the economic activities of people in society. It is the source of a wide variety of different fields of study and occupation, including legal practice, government, academia, history, sociology and philosophy.

Law is the set of rules that a society or group of societies develops to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships, such as marriage or divorce. It also refers to the professions that work in the field of law, which include lawyers and judges.

The concept of law is widely debated, and the precise definition remains a matter for some controversy. Generally, it is agreed that the term ‘law’ encompasses a set of institutions and processes that regulate human behaviour in order to promote certain values and to protect people’s rights, freedoms and liberties. Laws are created and enforceable through the exercise of power by a state or a group of states, or by private individuals. This may be done through group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by judges, resulting in case law. The laws themselves can be based on any number of principles and criteria, including a desire to prevent conflict, promote peace and stability, encourage development and growth, guarantee equality, provide security, and ensure that the rights of all citizens are respected.

Those who study the law often look at how it affects our lives and philosophise on its moral significance. The philosophical discussion of law is largely centred on the question of what it means for something to be ‘legal’. This debate is reflected in the legal and political systems that have developed across the world, with some embracing an ideal of the rule of law while others have rejected it or are experimenting with alternative ways of managing society.

Laws are interpreted and applied in a variety of ways, with each system influenced by its own cultural traditions and historical developments. Some countries, such as those with a common law tradition, have laws that are based on precedent and case law. Other countries, such as those with civil law traditions, have a legal system that is largely based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law, sometimes supplemented or amended by local custom and culture.

There are also differing views on the normativity of law, with some philosophers, such as Hans Kelsen, holding that coercion is an essential feature of law and distinguishes it from other normative domains, whereas 20th century legal positivists, such as H.L.A Hart, have tended to deny this and assert that the coercive aspect of law is actually quite marginal to its ability to fulfil its social functions. This controversia also extends to the way in which laws are made and enforced. See censorship; crime and punishment; and military and policing for more information.

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