Law is the system of rules a government or society develops to deal with matters like crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is also a subject of scholarly study in legal history, philosophy and economic analysis. Law shapes politics, society and culture in many ways, and raises complex questions about equality and justice. It is generally divided into three categories for convenience although subjects often overlap:
Legal subjects concern laws that regulate the behaviour of people, institutions and corporations in a range of situations. They include contracts, criminal and civil laws, and property law, which defines a person’s rights and duties regarding their tangible possessions.
Contract law involves agreements between two or more parties that exchange goods, services or anything else of value: this includes everything from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the stock market. Criminal law deals with actions that are considered harmful to the community, and in some cases can lead to imprisonment or fines. Civil law covers disputes between private individuals or organisations, and can involve compensation.
Administrative law encompasses regulations governing public administration: this can cover issues such as taxes, telecommunications and water. These are typically governed by national or state governments. Private companies may be bound by varying degrees of social responsibility as they take on public management of services such as utilities or energy production.
For example, a company may be required to disclose how much it pays its workers and to whom. The law can also protect the environment, with regulations concerning pollution and safety standards.
The law reflects a cultural belief in fairness and justice: it is a core part of the idea of a social contract between a state and its citizens. This is especially important in societies that are based on a religious faith, such as Islam or Christianity. In these societies, the laws are based on the beliefs and teachings of a particular religion.
A society’s law can vary from one country to the next, and from one cultural area to another. For instance, in Europe there is a difference between civil law jurisdictions, in which a legislature codifies and consolidates its laws, and common law jurisdictions, in which judge-made precedent is binding. There are also different systems of judging a case, such as the adversarial process in the US, and the inquisitorial process used in the UK and France.
The aims of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. A law may set out rules for a particular activity or situation, such as a statute, or it might explain how to apply other laws, such as case law or constitutional law. It can also determine which evidence a court will accept, and what procedure a trial will follow. In addition, a law can define the punishment for certain offences, such as obscene and threatening telephone calls. A government or other authority may enforce the law, using police, prosecutors, judges and lawyers.