What Is Law?

A law is a system of rules that governs the behavior of people and sets out punishments for wrongdoing. The law can also serve to maintain order, establish standards of conduct, resolve disputes, and protect civil liberties and property.

While some laws are imposed by military force, the majority of laws are made through political processes. Laws can serve a number of purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining social stability and order, protecting minorities from majorities, and facilitating healthy social change. The most important functions of law, however, are to punish wrongdoers, promote a sense of justice and fairness, and provide a safe and secure environment.

Many countries use different systems of law. For example, the United States uses a common law system, which derives from judge-made decisions in case law (a compilation of legal cases that have been decided). Other countries, such as Japan, employ a civil law system in which judges follow statutory code decisions, and statutes become public law after they are passed by Congress and signed by the President.

There are a wide variety of areas of law, including contract law, criminal law, family law, intellectual property law and tax law. Each of these areas has its own specialized terms and procedures. For instance, contract law covers the terms of commercial transactions. Family law includes divorce and inheritance laws and rights to children. Criminal law covers the punishment for crime. Laws governing medical jurisprudence and law enforcement are separate fields, but both share the goal of protecting people from harmful behavior.

The law can also include regulations on the use of resources such as water, energy and telecommunications, as well as environmental protection laws. These laws may be imposed by government or private entities. In some cases, the law may regulate the amount of capital a bank must hold to insure against financial crises or set best practices for investors. The law also regulates the provision of public services by private companies, and may dictate the level of social responsibility required of a company.

The laws of a nation vary widely from one country to the next, and some governments are more effective in serving their primary functions than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may oppress minorities or limit freedoms. In contrast, a liberal democracy is usually able to provide stability and protection for its citizens, even while promoting a sense of fairness and the development of new technologies. A democracy, however, is unlikely to thrive if the underlying political-legal infrastructure is unstable or corrupt.