Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been described as both an art and a science, but its precise definition is controversial.
The purpose of laws may vary from country to country, but most legal systems strive to accomplish a few key objectives. These include keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice, and regulating orderly social change. Some systems are more effective at meeting these objectives than others.
For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government might keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may also oppress its citizens or imprison political opponents. A democratic government might promote social justice, but it may fail to protect individuals’ property or freedom of speech. The success of a legal system depends on its ability to balance these competing priorities.
A scientific approach to the concept of law emphasizes predictability and objectivity. It aims to explain how a system works rather than simply describe its behavior. Unfortunately, this vision of law has been largely abandoned in the judicial and legal worlds.
Judges, lawyers, and scholars have a variety of definitions for the term “law.” Some of these are based on the context in which the word is used, while others are based on the purpose and goals of legal practice. The most important of these contexts are those in which the word is used to refer to a particular type of legal action or process.
These contexts include:
judicial proceedings – The process by which a judge or jury decides the rights and claims of parties in a lawsuit. These proceedings are conducted in a court of law and typically follow a structured format.
law clerk – A clerk assists judges with research and writing, especially in large cases. They often work for district courts, but are sometimes employed by state and federal courts as well.
legal brief – A written statement submitted by a lawyer for a party in a case that explains to the judge why the case should be decided in that party’s favor.
court reporter – A person who records the proceedings of a trial and provides a written transcript upon request.
evidence – Anything presented in a court case that can persuade fact finders (judge or jury) to rule for one party or the other. This includes witness testimony and documents.
case law – A previous court decision that must be followed without exception unless there are compelling reasons or significantly different facts and issues. Courts are bound by decisions of the highest court in their jurisdiction and of the appeals courts that can review them.
probation – A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision as long as certain conditions are met. public defenders – Represent defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers in criminal cases.