Law is a set of rules created and enforced by a society or government to control behaviour and protect people and property. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate and the study of law involves exploring the deeper dimensions of what is, in fact, a complex concept.
The principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Its implementation varies widely from country to country, reflecting a wide range of political circumstances. The concept of law is an integral part of a democratic system of government wherein the power to make and enforce laws rests with elected representatives, known as politicians. In a non-democratic government the power to make and enforce laws may reside in a military or bureaucratic hierarchy of authority.
In the context of an individual’s interactions with other individuals, law relates to their contracts, ownership of property and legal relationships. This includes the law that governs marriage, inheritance and property division. It also encompasses the law that provides compensation if someone is harmed, such as in cases of automobile accidents or defamation.
Most countries today have a constitution that sets out the overall framework of law. Additional laws are made by groups of politicians in a legislature, usually a parliament or congress, who are elected (chosen) by the governed peoples. Individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements to provide alternatives to standard court litigation.
When the Plantagenet king Henry II institutionalised common law in England in the 14th Century, he elevated and codified local custom into a national system of unified law. In doing so, he eliminated many local peculiarities and established a jury system of citizen witnesses sworn on oath to investigate criminal accusations or civil claims and determine guilt or innocence. This distinguishes English law from most modern legal systems.
In a common law jurisdiction the law evolves through several stages of research and analysis. When researching a case, judges consider the precedents established in past cases, as well as current statutes and decisions of other courts. They then extract principles, analogies and statements of intent from the decisions that are relevant to the present situation. The outcome of the case is a judgment which establishes the law for that particular instance.
The process of interpreting the law is a constantly evolving one and it requires a wide range of skills, including analytical thinking, problem solving and communication. Moreover, the law must be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with fundamental values such as equality and fairness. This is the reason why the judicial process is often so lengthy, with judges providing detailed explanations of their reasoning to help guide future decision-makers. In a democracy, this process helps to ensure that the law is transparent and accessible. It is an essential component of a functioning democracy, along with free and fair elections, freedom of the press and other checks on the power of government.