Law is the system of rules that a government or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It is enforced by police or courts, and it can punish those who break the rules. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways, and is a mediator of relations between people. A legal system can be characterized by whether it is publicly promulgated and equally enforced, whether it includes core human rights and freedoms, whether its institutions are independent, and whether the transition of power is subject to checks and balances.
Almost all nations have laws, and they vary widely in their complexity. In broad terms, laws can be broken down into civil and criminal law. Civil law concerns things that affect individuals, such as property and family matters. It may cover fields such as tort, which involves compensation when someone is harmed, contract, and constitutional law. It can also include areas like the taxation of private and public property, labour law, and environmental protection.
Civil laws are often codified in a legal code, making it easy for citizens and jurists to understand and apply. In contrast, criminal laws are based on case law, where judges decide on a case-by-case basis, and are often uncodified.
A country’s laws are influenced by its culture and the values it upholds. This influences the principles that are incorporated into the law, and how those principles are applied in particular situations. Some theories of law, such as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian theory, argue that the law should serve the greater good, but others, including natural lawyers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argue that law reflects a moral and unchangeable law of nature.
Law can also be influenced by religion, and religious books such as the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are important sources of law for many societies. Many legal systems rely on further elaboration, through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus) to make laws more detailed.
Law has many facets, and is an essential component of any functioning democratic society. It is a source of power, and it can be used to oppress minorities, preserve the status quo, or promote social change. The rules of a country’s laws can reflect the values of that country, or they can be imposed by external forces such as military force or colonialism. Some of the most famous laws in history are those that protect freedoms, such as the Bill of Rights in the United States. There are also laws that regulate industries such as banking, air travel and the use of medical drugs. Other laws, such as administrative law, govern how government agencies operate. Lawyers are professionals who study and advocate the law, and are referred to as attorneys in the US and solicitors or barristers in the UK. They may also hold titles of respect, such as Esquire, which indicates a higher level of professionalism, or Doctor of Law, which signifies a PhD in law.