Law is a set of rules that a country or community recognises as binding upon its members. These rules can be enforced through sanctions imposed by a controlling authority. Laws can cover a wide range of issues from criminal justice, property rights and social welfare to family and business law. The study of Law includes a deep and rich historical heritage. There are many different ideas about the nature of Law and its purpose. Some of the key purposes are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Some systems of law fulfil these functions more effectively than others. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will often oppress minorities or interfere with free speech. An independent judiciary, on the other hand, can provide a safeguard against such injustices.
There are a number of different ways to define the law. The laws of a particular jurisdiction are defined by the constitution, statutes and decisions of courts. Some countries, like the United States, employ a common law system wherein the rules are derived from judicial precedent (i.e. a compilation of decisions made by judges on the basis of the facts of each case). In contrast, other countries use a civil law system wherein the rules are established in legal codes and the judgments of lower courts have less binding force.
Despite the various definitions of law, there is a consensus that it consists of rules that govern behaviour. It is a framework of guidelines that ensures a peaceful society and provides a mechanism for resolving disputes. Laws can be enacted through legislative procedures and are enforced by mechanisms such as police, courts and sanctions.
A person who studies and argues the laws of a jurisdiction is called a lawyer, jurist or attorney. They are typically qualified by either studying in university and passing a legal exam or training as an apprentice to a more experienced lawyer. Some lawyers are specialised in transactional work, such as writing contracts, while others are litigators who go to court.
The most fundamental aspect of law is that it sets out rules that are generally agreed upon by a community as being ethical and fair. This includes rights and obligations that apply to all citizens, as well as to groups within the population such as corporations or organisations.
A law can be changed by a legal process known as ‘legislation’, in which an idea for a new rule is proposed and debated, before being approved by a legislative body such as a parliament or council of ministers. This becomes a public law once it is approved by the legislative body and signed into force by the executive branch of government, such as a president or monarch. Other forms of change to the law can be introduced through a constitutional amendment or referendum. These processes can be controversial, and are sometimes called’reforms’. The process of drafting laws is usually lengthy and involves extensive research, consultation with stakeholders and public participation.