What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a complex subject with many purposes and definitions, and has been variously described as both a science and an art. Law can be made by a collective legislature resulting in statutes, decreed by an executive authority through regulations and orders, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and impose legal obligations upon themselves.

A nation’s laws vary greatly from place to place, reflecting the different political landscapes and historical experiences of each country. In general, the principal functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect property and human life, preserve individual rights, and promote social justice. Some nations have more effective legal systems than others.

There are a number of distinct legal traditions around the world, including civil law, Islamic law, and criminal law. Civil law (also called continental or Romano-Germanic law) consists of concepts, categories and rules derived from ancient Roman law and canon law that have been supplemented and modified by local culture, custom and practice. It is found on all continents except Antarctica and covers about 60% of the world’s population.

Criminal law involves the prosecution of individuals or corporations accused of committing crimes, with punishments designed to deter crime and promote social justice. It is a large and diverse field, comprising areas as varied as murder, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, sexual assault, and possession of drugs. A prosecutor tries the case on behalf of the government, and defense lawyers represent the interests of their clients. Courts rely on a wide variety of legal resources to make decisions, including the written record of proceedings, testimony from witnesses and experts, and formal arguments presented by lawyers for each side in a case.

A judge presides over a trial and decides the facts of the case and the appropriate verdict, which is normally either guilty or not guilty. The judge is usually assisted by a jury of lay citizens who hear the evidence and reach their conclusions after discussion and debate. Other legal resources include the constitution, which provides a framework for government, and the laws, treatises and codes that constitute the body of law in each jurisdiction.

The study of law is often divided into several subfields, including public law, private law, and constitutional law. Other areas of specialization include the philosophy of law, the history of law, and the science of law. The study of law is a broad and rich area that covers a range of issues, from international law and human rights to family and labour law.