Law is the system of rules that governs society. It consists of both the body of written laws and of customs and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. Laws define a community’s rights and obligations, protect its citizens and ensure social stability. The study of law provides a rich source for inquiry into history, philosophy and economic analysis and raises complex questions about equality, fairness and justice.
Whether the law is good or bad depends on the nature of the world and what it can and cannot do. It cannot mandate behaviours that are impossible or immoral and it must be subject to the limits of human capability. The law is also dependent on the way the physical universe works and must reflect it in some way.
The law is the most important means of ensuring a stable, secure and peaceful society. The law provides a means for people to settle disputes without violence by determining the rights and claims of each individual. For example, if two people each claim ownership of a piece of land the courts will decide which of them is the rightful owner. The law also ensures that government officials and police officers act within the limits of their authority and respect individuals’ privacy and property.
There are many types of law, each shaped by the culture, traditions and values of its society. The main areas of law are contract, criminal and property. Contract law regulates agreements between persons for the exchange of goods or services. It includes anything from buying a bus ticket to trading shares on the stock market. Criminal law sets out the punishment for a number of offences, including murder. Property law defines the rights and duties of those in possession of tangible objects, such as land or buildings. It includes both real (‘real estate’) and personal property (movable objects such as cars and computers) as well as intangible assets such as intellectual property and shares.
The law is administered and enforced by a system of courts, tribunals and public officials. Courts decide lawsuits brought by private individuals and by the government. Judges and prosecutors are judicial officers with the power to charge people with crimes. They hear evidence from a wide range of sources, and they make decisions based on the facts of the case. They must be impartial and unbiased, and they must interpret the law in a way that is fair to all parties involved. They may also be called on to apply the law to new circumstances and situations. Other judicial officers are hearing examiners, clerks, probation officers and public defenders who represent defendants in criminal cases who can’t afford their own lawyers. They screen applicants for pretrial release and monitor convicted offenders who are released under supervision by the court. They also prepare reports on the operation of the judicial system and the administration of justice. The legal profession is regulated by professional bodies such as the bar association, bar council or law society in each country.