Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and protect rights. It is a subject of great interest to people of all walks of life. Among other things, it provides an important source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises fundamental and complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice.
The law is not a fixed thing, but is constantly evolving in response to new circumstances and the needs of society. Some of the most significant developments in the field of law include the development of constitutional democracy and the rise of civil rights. There is much debate on the nature and function of law. Some critics of the current legal system argue that it is too centralized and that power is not shared equally between branches of government. Others point to the need for checks on power and a free press as essential components of a well-functioning legal system.
There are two main types of law: criminal and civil. The former addresses conduct that is deemed harmful to the social order and includes criminal punishments such as fines or imprisonment. The latter deals with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. Civil law jurisdictions, sometimes called continental or Romano-Germanic legal systems, are found on all continents except Antarctica and comprise about 60% of the world’s countries. In many such jurisdictions, civil law combines with other legal traditions such as common law or customary law. Civil law traditions are also strong in countries that were once colonized by continental European nations, particularly in Africa and parts of Asia.
A central controversy in the philosophy of law concerns the role and significance of sanctions in law’s ability to perform its social functions. Early 20th century legal positivists like Hans Kelsen argued that the coercive aspect of law is central to its ability to fulfill its functions. This view was criticized by later philosophers such as H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz, who contend that the alleged coercive element of law is no more than a claim to legitimacy that reflects the fact that law is designed to prevent certain kinds of harm.
Some philosophers also dispute whether there is any such thing as a universal concept of law that can be objectively verified, or whether it is simply a construct of the human mind. These scholars see jurisprudence as a kind of conceptual analysis, continuous with other philosophical fields such as metanormative inquiry.