Law is a collection of rules governing behavior sanctioned by the authority of a state or nation. These laws may be based on written constitutions, statutes, and other legal documents, or they can be derived from precedent, custom, or the will of a deity. Legal systems vary widely from country to country and even within a single country, but most share certain core features that reflect historically accepted notions of justice.
Generally, the purpose of Law is to keep order and prevent violence, while also protecting individuals’ rights and fostering social change. This purpose can be accomplished in a variety of ways, and some systems do better at this than others. For example, while a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, it may also oppress minorities or political opponents.
In a democracy, the legislature creates and enforces Law through enactment of statutes or constitutional amendments. Individuals may also create and enforce their own rules through contracts, agreements, or other documents. In some cases, these may be enforceable through court action.
The judicial branch of the government is charged with reviewing and interpreting the laws created by the legislative and executive branches. This branch of the government also decides cases and imposes punishments. The judicial branch is further divided into trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court.
A trial court hears criminal and civil cases. Cases are decided by a jury or judge, and the participants in a case are known as litigants. Trial judges often serve for many years, so the lawyers and litigants become familiar with the judges’ tendencies and how they approach their cases.
Some important terms used in Law are:
evidence – Information presented during a court proceeding that persuades the fact finder (judge or jury) to rule for one side or another in a case. Evidence includes both circumstantial and direct evidence.
jury pool – The group of people from which actual jurors are chosen in a lawsuit. Lawyers in the case select the jurors from the pool through a process called voir dire.
precedent – A decision in an earlier case that is similar to a dispute currently before a court. Courts are bound by precedent unless they can demonstrate that the precedential case was wrongly decided or significantly different in facts and law.
brief – A document submitted by each lawyer for their client in a case outlining why the judge(s) should rule in favor of the client.
inculpatory evidence – Evidence that tends to show the defendant’s guilt.
a temporary restraining order – An order that prohibits a person from doing something that is likely to cause irreparable harm; this differs from an injunction in that it is usually granted quickly, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing.