Law is a set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of long-standing debate. The study of law encompasses many different disciplines, including legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. It raises complex issues concerning equality and fairness.
Generally, laws are made by a collective legislature through statutes, decrees and regulations or established by judges through precedent in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and agreements with each other or the government. Laws can be enforced through courts, tribunals or arbitration processes.
Legal systems differ significantly from country to country, reflecting cultural, historical and religious influences. The law of the United States, for example, is influenced by its constitutional democracy and American heritage. The law of England, by contrast, is based on parliamentary sovereignty and the monarchy. Most countries, however, have a combination of statutory, executive and judicial laws.
In general, law is a human creation and thus cannot be empirically verified. Its content is a mixture of precepts and expectations imposed on people by society, by the state or by religion. It can be compared to the rules and principles of other sciences, such as physics (the law of gravity) or social science (the law of demand and supply).
The genesis of law can be traced back to ancient societies, with the development of writing and an increase in the availability of information. In the early modern period, scholarly legal works emerged as well as codes and legal maxims. The Roman Empire developed a complex system of law, adapted to changing social circumstances. The medieval world inherited this legacy, with the emergence of a system of common law, influenced by Greek philosophy and case law.
Law has become an increasingly central aspect of everyday life in most countries. It regulates business transactions, defines people’s rights and duties towards tangible property (including real estate and movable possessions), intellectual property and financial products. It is also a source of controversy and conflict in some regions.
Increasingly, people want to ensure that the law is publicly promulgated and equally enforced across all socioeconomic groups. They may also wish to check whether core human and property rights are enshrined in the law. This involves understanding the power structures that underlie law, and how those can be changed through a process of democracy and reform.
Lawyers and other professionals advising people about the law and defending their rights in court are known as legal practitioners. Their work is overseen by a bar association, law society or other independent regulating body. This imposes a level of professional competence on those who practise law, ensures that they follow a code of ethics and undertake regular training to update their knowledge. It also means that they are accountable to their peers and the public. They can only practice law if they have qualified to do so through specified procedures, such as passing a qualifying examination.