The law is the set of rules a society develops to govern its behavior, particularly in areas like crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term can also refer to the people who work in the legal system or practice law, a profession that includes judges and lawyers. Law shapes politics, history and economics in many ways and provides a framework to resolve disputes.
The law serves many purposes, but four stand out as the principal ones: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Some nations have laws that accomplish one or more of these goals more effectively than others. For example, authoritarian governments often keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but may oppress minorities or opponents.
In a democracy, the law ensures that all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in government and to speak out against injustice. Laws regulate the use of property, define rights and obligations and protect private and public interests in all manner of transactions and interactions. For example, the law prevents citizens from making obscene or threatening phone calls, protects the privacy of personal information and limits the power of police. It also regulates the election of officials and the financing of political parties.
While some countries have civil law systems, most have common law systems. These tend to rely on judge-made precedent, which is compiled into case law. In contrast, some countries have legal codes that explicitly provide the rules judges must follow when deciding a case. This makes it easier for other judges to understand and interpret the decisions made by previous judges.
The earliest systems of law were based on religious precepts. These included Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law. Some of these are still used today in their religious forms, but the majority of law is now derived from human elaboration.
Modern law is a vast area of study with many different subjects. Some of these are specialized, but all law deals with how we deal with conflicts and problems. A few examples include employment law, which concerns the tripartite relationship between employer, worker and trade union; criminal procedure, which is concerned with how a trial or appeal proceeds; and evidence law, which involves what materials are admissible in court.
Another area of law involves regulating companies and organizations that manage things like utilities, transport or energy. This is especially true since privatization has become popular. The regulation of such entities has taken on a more complex nature, with governments seeking to balance social responsibility with profit and market freedoms. Various ethical issues arise here, including how much influence should be allowed from lobbyists and how to handle conflicts of interest.