Law is a system of rules imposed on people by their society and enforced through an authority. It covers everything from regulating trade and the transport of goods, to protecting human rights and the environment, and punishing criminals. The study of law involves understanding these systems and how they work, and is an important area of scholarly inquiry. It is also the basis of careers as lawyers and judges, who advise clients about their legal options, represent them in court, and give decisions and punishments.
Law can be broadly divided into two broad categories: civil law and criminal law. The former deals with disputes between individuals and organisations, such as lawsuits, while the latter deals with crimes that threaten social order or public safety, and is governed by the criminal law. Civil law also includes laws that define people’s rights and duties toward their tangible property, from their home and car to money, shares and debts.
The term “law” has been used in a variety of ways: “the laws of England”; “the law of nature”; and, most frequently, “the laws of God.” These differ from each other in their precise definitions. For example, the “laws of England” are a set of common law rules that were derived from ancient Roman codes and adapted by the judiciary over time. “The law of God” may refer to divine commandments, or, more generally, to the moral standards that are deemed to be acceptable by the Christian community.
Many nations have a mix of civil and religious laws, or secular and spiritual rules. These can be based on a constitution, statutes passed by parliament, or judicial decisions. The most common form of law is codified legislation and the legal doctrine of stare decisis, under which previous decisions by a higher court are accepted as binding on lower courts.
Civil laws have been developed primarily by government, and they are often based on European legal traditions. For example, the British common law was based on the principles of equity, precedent and the principle that the public interest must be served. Civil laws are also based on the needs of individual societies, with the result that they vary widely between jurisdictions.
Besides being the source of legal practice, the law is a significant subject for research in a range of disciplines, including history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises fundamental questions about justice, equality and fairness. Articles in this collection cover a wide range of topics in this area, from legal definitions and terminology to the relationship between law and religion and the law and social justice. For more information on careers in the field, see articles on legal profession and legal education; for a discussion of how laws are created, see lawmaking; and for an examination of the concept of rule of law, see the article on the Rule of Law.