Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It may be enacted by a collective legislature, usually resulting in statutes, or by the executive, typically through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements, and a variety of other legal instruments. The concept of the rule of law encompasses a broad set of principles to guide how laws are made, publicized, enforced, adjudicated and applied, including supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, and legal certainty.
The law is central to politics and economics and influences history, society, culture and human relationships in various ways. It serves a number of key functions, among them keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, and promoting social justice. Different nations’ laws serve these functions differently. The underlying philosophy of a nation’s law, its constitution and the principles encoded in it, is a key factor.
In addition, the study of law requires familiarity with a wide range of legal terms, concepts and procedures. A few of these are:
constitutional law – The principles and doctrine that govern the structure and operation of a country’s government, including its political institutions, and the fundamental rights of its citizens. The constitution of a country sets the limits on the power of the legislature and the executive, and defines how the judiciary will interpret the law.
criminal law – The body of rules and procedures governing the conduct of criminal proceedings, and the punishment of criminals. The law of a country can vary widely depending on its culture and historical experience, as well as the philosophy of its government.
family law – The area of law dealing with marriage, divorce, custody and property division in a family context. It includes domestic violence, alimony, and child support.
statutory law – A general law, passed by the legislature and codified in a book or other document. Statutes can be constitutional, common or administrative law.
case law – A judge’s interpretation of the meaning and scope of other laws, such as statutes, through a series of decisions in particular cases, called precedent.
jurisprudence – The practice of interpreting and developing the law through judicial decisions and scholarly writing.
A plethora of legal fields exists, encompassing such areas as tort law, contract law, labor law, environmental law, criminal law, corporate law and civil law. Some of these fields overlap and interrelate, especially in the United States.
The law is a very complex subject, with many different layers of complexity. Some of the deeper dimensions to the law are discussed in articles such as law, philosophy of; criminal law; civil rights; and censorship.
Other important articles include law, practice and ethics; the legal profession; and the role of law in a democracy. Laws in international affairs are dealt with in articles such as international law; treaty law; and law, science of.