What Is Law?

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Law is a social construct that provides rules for the behavior of individuals and groups. It is a complex and contested concept, with precise definitions varying among societies. In the broadest sense, it encompasses all enforceable rules, whether they are written or unwritten. It includes the rules that govern the relationships between people and the activities of government and private actors. It is also the set of legal instruments that establishes a system of justice, ensuring fairness, accountability, and protection of human rights, property, and privacy.

Law covers an enormous range of topics. Contract law defines how to exchange goods or services, ranging from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the stock market. Property law covers rights and duties toward tangible property (real estate, such as land or buildings), as well as intangible property, such as money in bank accounts or shares of stock. Tort law provides compensation for harm suffered by someone else, such as a car accident or defamation of character. Criminal law deals with offenses against a community, such as murder or theft.

In common law systems, decisions by courts are recognized as “law” on equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and with regulations issued by executive branch agencies. Courts follow the principle of “stare decisis,” which requires that their decisions be followed unless there is compelling evidence of reasoned change. Some courts, such as those of the United States Supreme Court, are en banc, meaning that all judges sit to hear cases; others are en banc only on rare occasions.