Law is a system of rules created and enforced by the state to ensure a socially just and peaceful society. It is a source of scholarly interest in subjects such as legal history, philosophy, and economic analysis, and raises complex issues of equality, fairness, and justice.
The precise nature of law is a matter of great debate, and the concept varies significantly from nation to nation. The most general definition is a set of rules that regulate behavior and provide for the peaceful resolution of conflicts between individuals and among groups. Laws may be derived from custom and culture or from a written constitution. Laws are typically interpreted by courts and enacted by legislative bodies.
A wide variety of laws exist, covering all aspects of human activity. A few major categories are identified for convenience, although the subjects often intertwine:
Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services; property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible (material) property such as land or buildings; criminal law deals with conduct that harms others; and family law regulates relationships between parents and children.
Moreover, the law provides a framework for governing the actions of public institutions such as police, schools, and government agencies. Laws also serve a vital social function: they help to prevent crime and to settle disputes without violence. For example, when two people claim ownership of a piece of property, they turn to the law for guidance rather than fighting each other or resorting to force.
An important principle underlying the law is called stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by things decided.” This means that when a court decides a case based on a particular set of facts, the same courts should follow that decision when deciding subsequent cases with similar facts. The exception to this is when the previous decision was wrongly decided, which allows judges to rethink earlier decisions and decide a case on its own merits.
In addition, there are many specific procedures for conducting trials and hearings. These include arraignment (the process of telling a defendant what charges are against them), the summoning and examination of witnesses, and a verdict or judgment (the official decision settling the case).
Law is a vast subject, and it is not possible to present a comprehensive treatment in this article. See the articles on legal profession, legal education, and legal ethics for more information. In addition, the relationship of law to political structures is covered in the articles on constitution; ideology; political party; and political system. The law’s role in promoting social justice is treated in the articles on human rights; land reform; and social service. Finally, for a description of legal systems in other nations, see comparative law.