Law is a system of rules that a society develops and enforces to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The word can also be used more generally to refer to any particular branch of the law, such as criminal or commercial law. The law can be viewed as an indisputable fact, but unlike the laws of physics or the laws of sociology, they don’t explain why things happen.
Legal studies and philosophy include a wide range of disciplines, including criminal and civil law, constitutional law, international law, and economic analysis. Scholars study the law because it reveals how societies and governments organize themselves. It is the subject of many different debates and arguments. For example, a philosopher might argue that the law is a natural phenomenon that does not impose itself upon human beings, while another philosopher might argue that the law is a tool for enforcing morality and regulating human relations.
The law consists of written and unwritten rules that a community or nation uses to regulate its behavior. It includes statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions.
Statutes are legislative acts passed by a legislature or a regulatory authority that are legally binding. Regulations are rules that establish minimum standards that a government or industry must meet, such as the water quality standard or the occupational safety regulations for a workplace. Judicial decisions are legally binding when they are published as court decisions, and a judge or barrister adheres to the principle of stare decisis when deciding cases.
Different countries have different types of law, but the principles are broadly similar. The law should be clear, publicized, stable, and applied evenly. It should protect people’s rights and private property. It should also ensure that the process of obtaining justice is accessible, fair and efficient.
In civil law systems, which are the most common in the world, a country’s legal tradition is derived from its constitution or statutes and its customs. Codifications of civil law have been around for millennia, with early examples being the Codex Hammurabi and the Napoleonic code. In mixed jurisdictions, which are found in Africa and on some Pacific islands, civil and common law traditions coexist.
A legal system serves four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberty and rights. Some legal systems serve these goals better than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it might oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a democratic regime might promote social change while keeping the peace. Its laws might also establish rules based on empirical and social science theories. The law also provides the context for debates about good and evil, and philosophical and ethical questions of right and wrong.