Law is a framework that governs the behavior of individuals and communities. It regulates such matters as contracts, property, and criminal activity. It is also a source of scholarly inquiry in areas such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis, and sociology. It raises many important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice.
The study of Law encompasses many diverse topics, including contracts, property, torts, homicide, criminal procedure, the Constitution, and the law of nations. It is the subject of many academic disciplines, such as jurisprudence, constitutional law, criminal law, international law, and legal philosophy.
A law is a set of rules imposed by a sovereign, a governing body, or an organization that sets out the rights and duties of its citizens or members. It may be an oral or written statement, a code, or a treaty. The law of a country or region is often based on its history, culture, and geographic location. For example, an Islamic law, or Shari’ah, is based on religious traditions. In addition to being a set of rules, the law is also a process in which decisions are made by judges, who are called “jurists.”
An individual who studies and practices law is known as a lawyer. A court case is called a lawsuit. A person who defends a lawsuit is called a defendant. Those who prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of the government are called prosecutors. A person who presents a lawsuit without a lawyer is called pro se (Latin for on one’s own behalf).
Some legal systems are authoritarian, while others are democratic. The rule of law is a principle that requires adherence to laws that are publicly promulgated and equally enforced, that protect individual rights, that provide for separation of powers and participation in decision-making, and that avoid arbitrariness.
The law of a nation can be used to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, and provide for orderly social change. Some governments that use the law for these purposes are brutal dictatorships, while others oppress minorities and their political opponents.
There are also civil law systems, which are found on all continents except Antarctica. These systems are based on concepts, categories, and rules derived from Roman law, and canon law, but are supplemented and modified by local custom and culture. Judges, as Blackstone stated, are “the depositories of the law; living oracles… bound by an oath to decide according to what is lawful and right.” Other sources of law include case law (court decisions), and precedent (an earlier decision with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before the court). Case law is binding, while precedent is not, although it can be considered influential. Other sources of law include constitutions, legislative acts, and legal codes. These are usually written and organized into books such as the United States Code. A judicial system that is well-functioning has a clearly defined role, with advance disclosure of rules and room for the judiciary to adjust these to changing social needs through interpretation and creative jurisprudence.