Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is the basis of a democratic state and serves many important purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting rights and liberties.
In its broadest sense, law covers everything that a society agrees to regulate: contracts; property; homicide; family law; criminal law; tort law (reparation for injuries or losses caused by someone else’s actions); intellectual property; commercial law; and so on. Laws may be enacted by a legislature, the constitution, or the courts, and they may be interpreted in many different ways. A lawyer, who is trained in the law, helps people interpret and understand it.
Legal systems vary widely, but in general there are two types: civil law and common law. The former uses categories, rules and precedents developed by a central authority such as the government, and is generally codified; in contrast the latter is more flexible, with judges interpreting and developing new laws through case law. Religious law also plays a role in some countries, most notably Islamic Shari’a.
The development of law is an ongoing process and a source of great debate. Some think it is a natural phenomenon that occurs spontaneously in societies, without needing human intervention, while others believe that the law is a social construct, reflecting the needs and values of society. Regardless of philosophical view, it is clear that law shapes politics, economics, history and culture in a variety of ways.
While laws can protect people from harm, they can also be used to hurt them. For example, fines that are meant to encourage people to follow the law can often lead to debt and criminalize poverty. Additionally, some laws can prevent people from seeking treatment for addictions such as drugs or alcohol.
One of the main functions of law is to ensure that a person’s freedoms and liberties are protected by an impartial system of justice. The shape of that justice depends on the political structure of a nation and is vastly different from country to country. This article deals primarily with legal issues in a democracy. For articles on the relationship between law and a government, see law and politics; law and religion; and law and military power.