The Basics of Law

Law is the system of rules that a particular community or country recognizes as binding upon its members and enforced through a controlling authority. It encompasses both the body of laws formulated by the courts and the legal profession that studies, explains and applies them. Law can be viewed as a form of social control, but it can also be seen as a means of promoting freedom and justice. Some legal systems are more authoritarian than others, and some may serve one or all of the following purposes: to keep peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities from majorities, promote social justice, and provide for orderly social change.

Laws can be classified in many ways, depending on the purpose they serve or the origin of the rules. For example, some legal systems are based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, or Christian canon law. Religious laws can then serve as a basis for further human elaboration, such as interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and Ijma (consensus).

In contrast, some legal systems are derived from an amalgam of legislative statutes, judicial decisions, and executive regulations. The latter include the statutory law of a country, its administrative law, and its constitutional laws, as well as its international treaties and conventions.

The body of laws that are formulated by the courts and the legal profession is often called ‘case law’, or caselaw. This is a source of much legal lore and debate, for example over whether judges should be allowed to use their common sense, or whether certain laws are really laws at all – for instance, the War on Drugs, which has been used as an excuse for seizing cash from poor people, even though that money was probably ‘ill-gotten’.

A crucial aspect of the rule of law is the idea that no individual or group can be above the law. For this reason, some legal systems use a U.S.-style separation of powers, while others rely on procedures such as no confidence votes and regularly scheduled elections.

Other important aspects of the law include family and labour law, which deal with marriage and divorce, and the rights of children; criminal and civil law, which govern crimes and court proceedings; and property and commercial law, which governs contracts and ownership. Finally, there are also laws governing international relations and the environment.