Law is a system of rules that societies or governments develop to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. It may also refer to a profession which involves advising people about the law or representing them in court.
Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a wide range of ways. It is the subject of scholarly investigation in fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
While the precise nature of law is a matter of debate, it can be generally described as being the system of rules enforceable by a state or other governing body to control behavior. Some laws are intended to promote the public good; others are designed to punish bad conduct or to protect people from harm.
A key feature of any legal system is the separation between powers. The judicial power is reserved for judges and magistrates, while legislative and executive power is vested in parliamentarians or other legislators. However, this principle of separation has been eroded as modern government’s have ascended to unprecedented levels of authority over people’s daily lives. The omnipresence of military, police and bureaucratic organisations has created new problems of accountability that Max Weber or Montesquieu could not have imagined.
There are many different types of law, ranging from international law to family law. Most laws are concerned with individual rights and social relations, although some are based on natural processes.
Some of the most common laws are property law (which governs ownership), tort law and criminal law. Tort law covers damages resulting from things like car accidents and defamation, and criminal laws provide for punishment of behaviour that violates a community’s ethical standards. Property law deals with both real property, such as land and buildings, and personal property, including movable goods and intellectual property such as patents.
Other laws are based on scientific principles, such as the law of gravity or the law of thermodynamics. Still others are religious or moral in nature. A law of nature is a rule that has come into existence without being enacted by human beings: the law of gravity or the law of thermodynamics are laws of nature because they always have and will continue to exist.
Most countries have either a civil law or common law system. In civil law systems, the sources of law recognised as authoritative are legislation (including constitutional and statute laws) and custom, while in common law systems legislative statutes are given equal footing with judgments of judges, which form a binding precedent. This concept is known as stare decisis. Some countries, such as Japan, have hybrid systems where they retain some civil law elements, but a substantial portion of their law is based on common law.