Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Some nations employ law to keep the peace, maintain order, preserve property and rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and provide a mechanism for orderly political change. Various legal systems exist worldwide and are the subject of considerable scholarly inquiry.
The precise definition of law varies considerably and is often debated. The word “law” is also used to describe specific areas of jurisprudence, such as criminal law, civil law and contract law, as well as legal ethics and philosophy. Law also encompasses a broad range of professions such as law enforcement, judicial process, lawyers and judges.
A nation may adopt a variety of legal systems to meet its particular needs. Some countries, such as the United States, employ a common law system, whereby judges interpret and enforce laws by examining cases that have been brought to trial. These case decisions are compiled as case law. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law system in which codes explicitly specify the rules judges must apply when deciding cases.
Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a wide variety of ways. In addition, it raises fundamental and complex questions of equality, fairness and justice. The nature of the law and its relationship to other social institutions varies widely among societies, reflecting the influence of culture, tradition, religion and socioeconomic status.
In general, laws govern people’s conduct by setting standards and imposing penalties. In the United States, courts determine a person’s guilt or innocence after a trial based on evidence presented by the plaintiff and defendant. Laws may also prohibit certain activities such as murder and robbery, or establish minimum age requirements for certain professions.
Laws are typically administered by a government, but can also be administrated by private entities. Many of the same concepts of law apply to all jurisdictions, but variations in language and terminology reflect cultural and historical differences.
For example, American courts use a standardized set of rules called the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, while European courts follow their own sets of rules, known as the Code of Civil Procedure.
The practice of law involves a vast array of subjects, such as constitutional law, administrative law and tort law. The study of law also includes an investigation into the structure and functioning of the judicial branch of government, including the Supreme Court, district courts and state courts of appeals. Other topics include criminal law, civil procedure, evidence and bankruptcy. An important area of law is international law, which addresses issues involving the sovereignty of nations and their boundaries.