Law is a vast and diverse area of human endeavour. It encompasses everything from the legal profession, to the discipline of law itself (which is primarily a study of how rules are made and enforced), to the way laws shape our daily lives. It is a field of scholarly research spanning such subjects as history, philosophy, economics and sociology, while it raises complex questions about equality, fairness and justice.
The word ‘law’ is generally understood to refer to the body of rules that governs a society or group. These rules may be written or unwritten, but they must be binding and enforced. Law is a central component of all societies, and it serves a variety of purposes, including maintaining social order, resolving disputes, promoting social justice and ensuring public safety.
Many different types of law exist, but they are generally classified into two groups: civil law systems and criminal law systems. Civil law systems (also called continental or Romano-Germanic legal systems) comprise around 60% of the world’s jurisdictions. They are based on concepts, categories and rules largely derived from Roman law and canon law, supplemented or modified by local custom and culture.
Criminal law systems, on the other hand, are based on a system of punishment for offenses against the state. Those who perpetrate offenses against the state are subject to criminal law, which seeks to uphold the social and moral order of a country. The laws of a nation are the result of its politics and political processes, and this is reflected in the content of its laws.
A key factor in a nation’s ability to make and uphold its laws is its power. The prevailing political landscape is vastly different from nation to nation, and the extent to which a government can serve its principal functions – establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights – is influenced by that context.
The most basic function of law is to ensure that all members of a society behave in accordance with the requirements of the community. It does this by enforcing a set of rules that define what is and is not permissible in various circumstances, and which are applied by an authority figure. This authority is typically a judge or other member of the judiciary. Aside from these specific areas of law, the term also covers all social institutions, communities and partnerships that form the basis for a legal system. These are referred to as the legal system’s ‘civil society’. In addition, religious precepts are sometimes used as the foundation for law, such as in the Jewish Halakha, the Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law. However, these sources require further elaboration by humans to become laws that are binding on everyone in a society. This elaboration is what makes the study of law unique among other disciplines. It is also what makes it so controversial.