Law is the system of rules governing human conduct created and enforced through social or governmental institutions. It may be made by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent (or stare decisis), as in “common law” jurisdictions. It can also be established through private contracts and agreements, enforceable by courts (contract law), or through the force of custom and policies recognized by judicial decision (constitutional law).
The study of laws involves many disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, including history, philosophy, political science, economics, sociology and anthropology. It also addresses deeper issues of equality and fairness.
Different societies have developed diverse legal systems. The fundamental function of law is to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities from majorities, ensure social justice and provide for orderly social change. However, it is often difficult for governments to perform these tasks well. Even when a nation has a constitution and democratic government, rebels regularly attempt to overthrow existing legal-political authority; or, as in some cases, aspirations for greater rights and democracy are frustrated by authoritarian rule.
The law is a complex and evolving phenomenon, and the different branches of the legal system reflect this diversity. The most basic branches of the law are criminal, family and civil law. Criminal law deals with the conduct of individuals and groups that is considered harmful to society. It can result in criminal conviction, fines and imprisonment. Family law covers the rights of individuals in their relationships and with each other, including marriage, divorce and child custody. Civil law involves lawsuits between citizens and with corporations.
Each branch of the legal system has a distinct vocabulary and practices. Some of the most important words in the legal vocabulary are binding precedent, arraignment, compulsion and arbitration. A binding precedent is a court decision in an earlier case that has facts and law similar to a dispute currently before the court. It must be followed by the lower court unless it can show that the precedent was wrongly decided or significantly different in fact and law.
Other important legal terms include a court’s jurisdiction, which refers to its power and authority to hear a case; the parties involved in the case; the evidence that is available to be used by the judge during trial; and a court’s procedure in hearing the case. There are also various specializations in the field of law, such as administrative law, constitutional law and jurisprudence. Appeals are the process by which an individual can ask another court to review the ruling of a lower court or tribunal. The most common types of appeals are criminal, family, civil and evidence law appeals.