What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules established and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. These systems can be created by legislatures resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations or by judges through precedent, as in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legal agreements that are binding under a variety of circumstances.

The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a wide range of ways. It may prevent crime, maintain peace and the status quo, protect minorities from majorities or even oppress people. A country with an authoritarian government that promotes economic growth may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but will also oppress its people, for example, Burma or Zimbabwe. Conversely, a nation that is a model for human rights and social justice may be able to bring about peaceful change but can still suffer from oppression of its people or corruption, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Legal systems can differ widely across the world. For example, the law of the United States differs from that of European countries. Legal systems can be divided into civil law, which deals with disputes between individuals, and criminal law, which focuses on offenses against the state. Civil law can be further broken down into fields such as contract law, tort law and property law.

Contract law regulates the exchange of goods, services or money. Tort law provides compensation to victims of wrongdoing, including injuries caused by automobile accidents or defamation. Property law defines the rights and duties of owners toward their tangible assets, such as houses and cars, as well as intangible assets, such as bank accounts and shares of stock.

A legal dispute can be decided by a judge or by a jury. A judge decides the facts of a case and determines if the defendant is guilty or innocent. A jury is a group of people who listen to testimony from witnesses, consider evidence presented by the plaintiff and defense and ultimately vote on the case. A person who is not a judge or jury member is called an observer.

The law influences everyday life in many ways, and each field of law can be a broad subject that includes specific issues such as bankruptcy; aviation; family; international law; insurance; maritime; and tax laws. The practice of law is a complex endeavor and requires extensive research and reading. Lawyers must have a strong understanding of all aspects of the law and be able to anticipate and address potential problems that may arise in their practice. They must also be able to communicate clearly, both verbally and in writing, and explain complex topics in simple terms for non-lawyers. Articles on law can be found in numerous publications, both general and specialized. These articles can include commentary on current events, analysis of recent legislative changes or critiques of controversial legal developments. They can be found in newspapers, magazines and online.