The Basics of Law


Law is a complex subject that covers a wide range of topics. Generally, it refers to the set of rules and principles enacted by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and provide justice. Some laws are explicitly written while others are derived from tradition and custom, recognized by judicial decisions, or both. It is the source of much scholarly study in areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises many questions about the fairness and justness of human governance.

The precise nature of law is a topic of intense debate. A common understanding is that it is a system of rules and standards enforceable by a government to ensure public safety, protect the rights of citizens and encourage economic growth. However, it is also a social construct that may serve other goals. In an authoritarian state, it may keep the peace, maintain the status quo, suppress minorities and oppress political opponents. In a democracy, it may promote individual liberty and facilitate orderly social change.

Some of the broad subjects that fall under law include contract law, which consists of the regulations for agreeing to exchange goods or services; property law, defining people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects, such as houses and cars, and intangible assets such as bank accounts and stocks; criminal law, addressing conduct that is harmful to society and potentially punishable by imprisonment; administrative law, dealing with the procedures and regulations for government agencies, such as the post office and military service; and statutory law, referring to legislation passed by a legislature.

Other specialized fields of law include tax law, describing the rules for calculating and collecting taxes; space law, relating to activities in Earth orbit and outer space; and labor law, covering workplace relations between workers and employers or trade unions. The study of law can also be used to understand a society, as in the case of constitutional law and the political science subfield of political systems.

Some of the basic concepts of law include precedent – the fact that past decisions help shape future rulings; jurisprudence – the theory of how judges decide cases; and judicial authority – the power granted to a judge or other judicial officer to make a decision in a court case. Other important aspects of law include the right to trial and appeal, privacy and freedom from censorship, transparency in government and the press, protection against arbitrary power, and core human and procedural rights, such as those outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In some countries, these are enshrined in the constitution. In other countries, they are developed through a process called rule of law, which involves measures to guarantee the supremacy of the law, equal enforcement, legal certainty and independence, separation of powers and participatory democracy. The concept of rule of law is also the basis for international treaties and agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights.