Law is the set of rules that regulate human relationships and societies. Its precise definition is a subject of ongoing debate, but one common theme is the notion that it is a social construct enacted by a group (either a nation or a community) to ensure that people behave in ways that promote mutual respect and cohesion. This is often contrasted with “natural” or divine laws that are based on concepts of natural justice and the will of a deity.
Law includes the rules that govern the practice of litigation, which involves resolving disputes by means of trial and appeal. It also encompasses the legal system itself and the professions that serve it, including lawyers and judges.
The term “law” is unique in comparison to other sciences and disciplines because it has both descriptive and prescriptive aspects: it dictates what people ought to do or not do, but only after a thorough analysis of the situation – for example, by considering factors such as cost-effectiveness, public safety, equality, etc.
Different legal systems have evolved in response to changing social and economic conditions. These systems vary in terms of their scope and the degree to which they are accountable to their constituents. Some are highly centralised, and others devolve much authority to local authorities, communities or individuals. The degree to which these different approaches are successful is known as the rule of law, and it is one of the key issues in international relations and political science.
Some laws are based on religious precepts, for example the Jewish Halakhah and Islamic Sharia, while others are derived from a combination of legislation and custom. Civil law, which dominates the legal systems of most countries today, is largely based on legislative sources such as statutes and constitutional conventions, but it has been influenced by other sources, particularly case law and custom.
Law also deals with many areas of individual interest, such as tort law, which provides compensation for damages caused to persons or their property by a breach of duty, for instance by an automobile accident. Administrative law covers the regulation of business and money-related matters such as employment, taxation and financial institutions. Family law, which includes divorce proceedings and custody of children, is another area covered by the courts.
The terminology used in law can be confusing. Some terms are merely descriptive, but some are important for understanding the operation of the legal system: