Law is the system of rules, customs and practices that a group recognizes as binding upon themselves. It is often seen as a means to enforce individual rights, preserve social stability, promote equality and equity, and facilitate change. Whether these goals are achieved depends on the nature of the system itself and its ability to serve the underlying interests of society. Some systems serve these purposes well, while others do not.
The precise definition of law has been debated for centuries. It is different from other sciences and disciplines, for it is normative rather than descriptive. It tells people how they ought to behave, what they can or cannot require from others, what they may or must not be punished for. Law also lacks the empirical basis of statements of natural or social science (such as a law of gravity or the law of supply and demand).
Because of these peculiar characteristics, law is hard to define. A definition must take into account the way that law differs from person to person, depending on their own social and cultural experiences. In addition, the concept of law is shaped by how much power it entrusts to those who are responsible for its enforcement.
The study of law is therefore multidisciplinary, encompassing anthropology, history, sociology and politics as well as the traditional subjects of law. A broad range of theories can be used to explain the origins and development of law, and there are many debates about how law should be interpreted and enforced.
A key aspect of the law is its authority, which derives from the political process in most countries. In theory, this should ensure that laws are publically promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘rule of law’, and its requirements are set out in international legal documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There are three main categories of law: civil, criminal and administrative. Civil law deals with disputes between individuals, such as property law or tort law (which covers damages awarded for car accidents or defamation). Criminal law governs offences against the state or its agencies, such as murder or robbery. Administrative law deals with the regulation of businesses, such as tax law, labour law or company law.
However, even these core areas of law have numerous sub-fields, which include commercial law (agencies, insurance, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy) and property law; employment law and labour relations; family law; and evidence law (which concerns what materials are admissible in courts for a case to be built). In addition, the emergence of new technology has brought about specialised fields such as space law and cyberlaw. There are also many discussions about the role of judges, for example whether they should be ‘political’ and how much their own beliefs can influence decisions that they make in court cases. This is a crucial issue for the proper functioning of a democracy.