Law is the set of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It serves four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law spreads far beyond the core subjects of criminal law, civil law and property law, into virtually every area of life. Its precise definition has long been a subject of controversy.
It is generally accepted that the law is a system of rules established by a governing authority, either a collective legislature (resulting in statutes) or by an executive imposing decrees and regulations. It may be further influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and by judges creating legal precedent. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts through arbitration agreements. The precise definition of the law also depends on who has power to make and enforce it; for example, dictators may have more control over their regime than democratically elected governments.
Those who study law often focus on its application in society and the ways it relates to other disciplines, including philosophy, history, economic analysis and sociology. It raises issues of equality and fairness that are crucial to the stability and security of nations and their citizens. It also addresses fundamental questions about the nature of the state and the relationship between individuals and the state.
The most important function of the law is to define the boundaries of permissible behaviour and to ensure that people abide by those limits. This is why the principles of judicial independence, transparency and participation in decision-making are at the heart of the rule of law.
Historically, the development of the law was driven by cultural, economic and political factors. During the Renaissance, philosophers began to analyse the role of the law and its impact on human freedom. The philosophy of law has been influenced by the theological ideas of Catholicism, the Enlightenment and secularisation.
Various types of laws exist, reflecting the varying social and historical conditions in different nations and cultures. For instance, commercial laws include contracts, intellectual property law, insurance and securities regulation. Criminal laws deal with violations of public morality, while civil law concerns the resolution of legal disputes between private parties. Other types of laws exist to protect specific groups, such as the environment or minorities. They are sometimes called public or statutory law. A related discipline is regulatory law, which governs the provision of utilities such as water and energy, as well as public services, such as education and health care. The philosophy of law is a source of scholarly inquiry that is shaped by the theorist’s time, place and culture. For this reason, philosophical speculation about the nature of law is sometimes parochial. However, it is important to realise that any philosophical theory of the law is a theory about how the law operates in a particular kind of legal system and culture. It is not, as some have suggested, a generalised theory about how to run a democratic system of government or other political institutions.