Law is the set of rules enforced through social or governmental institutions to govern behavior. It is a key component of social order and allows for the allocation of benefits and burdens within society, such as property, citizenship, health and welfare. Law is the subject of many scholarly disciplines, such as legal history, philosophy and sociology, and raises complex issues of equality, fairness and justice.
The most common form of law is the constitution, tacit or written, that establishes the governing structures of a country and defines the rights and responsibilities of its citizens. Law can also be created through collective legislative action, resulting in statutes, or by executive decree and regulation, or by judges through precedent (called stare decisis in Latin). Individuals can also create legally binding contracts, known as private law.
A fundamental question concerning the nature of law is its relationship to morality. The utilitarian theories of John Austin and Jeremy Bentham have had a strong influence on the development of law, while natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that laws are based on unchangeable principles of morality.
The legal system is comprised of many branches, each addressing specific aspects of the human condition. For example, criminal law deals with the punishment of individuals found guilty of committing crimes and the administration of justice. Civil law addresses the resolution of disputes between individuals or organizations through lawsuits. Family law, employment law, property law and taxation law are other branches of the legal system.
Legal jargon is often difficult for non-lawyers to understand. Some examples are:
Appeals – A request for another court to review a decision and determine whether it was handled correctly. Defendants and plaintiffs can both appeal, but only if they believe the original court made an error or misinterpreted the law.
Precedent – A previous court decision that influences the outcome of a case with similar facts and circumstances. Judges and barristers will normally attempt to follow precedent in order to ensure that future cases reach consistent conclusions.
Property law – The law relating to ownership of land and other real property, such as buildings, cars and furniture. This includes rights in rem and rights in personam. Intellectual property law, company law and trusts are also part of this branch.
Family law – The law relating to marriage, divorce and child custody. Immigration and nationality law – The legal regulations that govern the right to live and work in a country that is not one’s own and the ability to gain or lose citizenship. Labour law – The legal regulation of working conditions and employment. Administrative law – The legal processes that government agencies use to regulate their activities.