Law is a system of rules that a society develops and enforces to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term can also be used to refer to the people who work in this system, such as lawyers or judges.
Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is a source of scholarly inquiry into areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law can be state-enforced through legislation by a legislature, which results in statutes, or privately established by private individuals through contracts or arbitration agreements. In some countries, laws may be written in a constitution, which is a binding and authoritative document that governs the whole of the country’s legal system.
Legal systems vary greatly in their effectiveness at achieving the goals of a nation. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but at the cost of oppressing minorities and political opponents. A constitutional democracy, on the other hand, may allow for democratic change while keeping the peace and protecting property and rights.
In some countries, the law is highly specialised. For instance, tort law provides compensation for those whose personal or business affairs are damaged by the behaviour of others. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to the social order, resulting in punishment by imprisonment or fines. Civil law deals with disputes between private parties, such as a dispute over an automobile accident or defamation of character.
Other areas of the law include administrative, commercial, property and tax law. In these fields, the law sets minimum standards for businesses and regulates activities that require some degree of public responsibility, such as water supply, electricity generation or financial trading. Space law is an increasingly important field that addresses aspects of international space relations and human activities in outer space.
The formation and development of laws are often influenced by religious, moral or social principles. For example, Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia are both legally binding on some communities, while Christian canon law survives in some church communities. However, even where religious law exists, a detailed and thorough legal system usually requires human elaboration through judicial interpretation and precedent.
In modern times, lawyers are typically licensed to practise law by a government or independent regulating body. They gain their distinct professional identity through specified legal procedures and a formal educational qualification (usually a Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Civil Law or Juris Doctor degree). Those who are not licenced to practice law are referred to as unlicensed practitioners or pro se. Legal professions may have titles of respect such as Esquire and Barrister. Public defenders represent those who cannot afford their own lawyer in criminal cases. Appeals are requests to overturn the judgment of a lower court or tribunal. They can be made by both plaintiffs and defendants. An appellant is the party who is making the appeal, and the person conducting an appeal is known as a judge of appeals.