Law is a system of rules that society develops and enforces in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It can also be used to refer to the people who work in this system, including lawyers and judges. The study of law is called legal studies or jurisprudence.
A well-functioning society requires a system of law to govern and organize its affairs. This is necessary in order to ensure that individuals are held accountable for their actions and the society as a whole is protected from harm and disruptions.
The laws of a society determine the boundaries and limitations of individual freedoms, define what constitutes a criminal act and set standards for social and economic interaction. These principles are commonly referred to as “the rule of law.” The ideal of the rule of law is one that seeks to guarantee fairness, stability and security for all members of society, regardless of their background or wealth.
There are a number of different types of law, ranging from civil laws to criminal laws. Civil laws deal with disputes between individuals, such as contract law and tort law (which provides compensation when someone or something is harmed, like an automobile accident or defamation of character). Criminal law deals with offenses against the state, such as crimes against property or person, and are governed by constitutional law and criminal procedure.
Governments make laws through a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or through executive decrees and regulations. In some jurisdictions, judges create law through precedent, a process known as common law. Individuals can also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that provide alternatives to court proceedings.
Many legal theories and concepts exist in order to describe and explain the law. One of the most influential is the ontological theory developed by the 19th century English judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who argued that law existed not because it was proclaimed, recognized or enforced, but because bad people expect to be punished for their wrongdoing.
Other important legal concepts include the principle of stare decisis, which means that a court should usually follow the decision of another case with similar facts and issues unless there is a compelling reason not to do so or significant differences in the facts and circumstances involved in the two cases. There are also procedural laws, such as rules of evidence, courtroom decorum and appellate procedures, that govern the conduct of a lawsuit. And there are special laws such as those governing aviation, maritime law, bankruptcy and medical jurisprudence.