The law is the set of rules that a place or group establishes and enforces to regulate people’s actions. It includes both the customs and practices of a society as well as laws passed by a government or other authority. Laws may deal with a wide variety of issues, including the protection of rights and liberties, maintaining order, settling disputes, and providing guidance for future social change. Different legal systems have evolved to meet these broader objectives differently. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime might keep the peace and maintain the status quo but may oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a constitutional democracy might provide checks and balances on the power of its elected leaders to prevent abuse of office, make sure that the public is informed about the ways their taxes are used, and ensure that people receive equal treatment regardless of wealth or social standing.
A common feature of many legal systems is that judges resolve people’s disputes and determine whether those accused of crimes are guilty. These judges are typically members of a judiciary, which is a body of people appointed by a government to serve in these roles and is meant to be independent from the influence of politicians or other powerful interests. In common law countries, the decisions of judges are considered “law” and are governed by the principle of stare decisis, in which a judge’s decision is binding on other courts, meaning that similar cases will reach similar results. In civil law countries, legislatures write the laws and judicial decisions are generally less detailed and do not bind lower courts.
Another branch of law concerns intellectual property, which covers the rights that people have to what they create, such as art, music and literature. This is protected by a kind of law called copyright, and the names and logos of companies are protected by trademark laws. Trust law (business law) sets out the rules for how money is invested, including pension funds that people save up for retirement. Finally, tort law helps people to make claims for compensation (repayment) when they have been hurt or their property has been damaged by the actions of others.
The study of law involves a wide range of topics and is a popular area of study for students in schools and universities around the world. It is a field that encompasses not only the practice of law but also the philosophies and history behind the development of different legal systems. The articles listed below provide a good starting point to explore these issues. For further reading see article on legal philosophy and legal history. For articles on the role of lawyers and judges, see legal profession, legal education, and lawmaking. For articles on the relationship of law to political structures, see constitution; ideology; and political system. For articles on the importance of law to social justice and other social issues, see human rights; land reform; and shari’ah.