Law is a set of rules, whether formally enacted or customary, that governs the behavior of individuals and communities. Its purpose is to control the activities of people by providing them with guidance on how to behave and imposing sanctions on those who fail to comply. The nature of law has been a source of controversy throughout human history. It is usually understood to have four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The extent to which law is coercive is often a central feature of the debate over its nature. It is also controversial whether law should be distinguished from other normative domains that influence human behavior, such as morality or social conventions.
Legal systems vary in their ability to achieve the objectives of law. For example, an authoritarian government might keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but may oppress minorities or interfere with free speech. In contrast, a democracy might not have as strong an impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens, but is more likely to promote social justice and support individual liberty.
Another source of interest in the nature of law relates to the fact that some laws are not well-understood. For instance, the question arises as to why a legal system should treat one person more favourably than another even though their actions are identical.
Various theories of law attempt to provide answers to these questions. The most influential have been the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. They argue that the normative aspect of law consists in its threat of sanctions. They further argue that such sanctioning is effective because people have a natural tendency to obey the commands of authority figures they regard as morally authoritative. This view of the normative nature of law was challenged, however, by H.L.A. Hart, who argued that it presupposes a fundamental assumption about the nature of law: that there is a law-giver with the power to impose sanctions.
Other important topics in the study of law include the legal profession; legal education; and the relationship between a nation’s political structure and its system of law. Legal ethics also concerns the way lawyers interact with their clients. Other articles deal with the specifics of particular types of law. For example, banking law concerns the regulations that govern how much capital a bank must hold or best practice for investment, whilst environmental law is concerned with the management of water, electricity and other utilities by private companies bound to varying degrees of public accountability. Legal regulation concerns the standards that private firms must meet in order to trade, and the procedures they must follow when dealing with disputes. Labour law covers the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, whilst evidence law covers which materials can be cited in courts. In modern times, law has also become concerned with cultural heritage, as demonstrated in the debate over the use of property law to protect indigenous culture from being stolen by commercial interests.