Law is the system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, but it has traditionally been recognised as a complex phenomenon that affects all aspects of human life. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in a multitude of ways and raises questions about equality, fairness and justice.
The law can be made by a legislative body in the form of statutes, decrees and regulations or set by judges in common law jurisdictions through court precedent. It governs both private and public actions and applies to all people regardless of their citizenship or location.
Its general rule is that one may not act in a manner that is harmful to social order and that those who do so will be punished. However, the law also allows some freedoms in return for a degree of social control and regulation.
Law encompasses a vast array of subjects, but can be broadly divided into three categories:
Contract law concerns agreements to exchange goods or services for money, and includes everything from buying a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. Property law determines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (like houses and cars) and intangible property such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law deals with the punishment of people who commit crimes, such as murder, rape or robbery. Civil law is the process by which disputes are settled in court, including divorce and inheritance.
Legal theory examines the nature of law and how it is constructed, applied, interpreted and adjudicated. It has a variety of sub-fields, such as legal philosophy, legal history and economic analysis, as well as more specific areas like legal ethics, the philosophy of law and legal sociology.
The practice of law, on the other hand, deals with the actual process of interpreting and applying the law in a given society. Law practitioners can be found in a variety of settings and are tasked with ensuring that justice is served fairly, evenly and consistently. This involves enforcing the law in a way that is accessible, understandable and stable for all citizens, while also ensuring that individual rights are protected and justice is done without undue delay or expense.
There is also a large body of research into how law is practised in specific countries and cultures, with particular attention to identifying the characteristics of high quality law systems, such as those that are transparent, accountable and efficient.
The law shapes politics, economics and history in a wide range of ways, but its most fundamental purpose is to create standards and maintain order. It does this by establishing, promoting and maintaining laws, regulating business activities and settling disputes between individuals and between states or territories. It serves as a mediator between citizens, and it is a core aspect of many societies. It is not, as some cynics have suggested, merely an instrument of power in the hands of the state but an essential component of the very fabric of modern life.