Law is a system of rules and procedures that governs the activities of a people or group. Law can be used to ensure that private and public interests are protected, maintain social order, provide justice, and promote or retard social change. Law also serves as a source of scholarly inquiry in the fields of legal history, philosophy and economic analysis.
A nation’s laws can differ significantly from one nation to the next. Laws of a country may be based on different theories about what is right and wrong, what constitutes fairness, the proper distribution of goods, privileges and burdens in society, and how to handle conflict.
In addition to providing guidance for a nation’s citizens, law also defines the boundaries of the territory that a government controls. The concept of law varies from culture to culture, with many non-modern cultures having no concept of it at all.8 Natalia Loukacheva, a scholar who studies aboriginal governance systems, suggests that the differences in perceptions of law between modern Western and indigenous societies create a “clash in values” that can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts between them.
The main function of law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect individual rights, preserve minorities against majorities and promote social justice. A law is only useful, however, if it is widely obeyed and enforced. Nations that have undemocratic or authoritarian governments often fail to fulfill these fundamental functions. Each year, there are rebellions against existing political-legal authority and aspirations for democracy and greater equality of citizens’ rights.
Legal systems vary greatly around the world, with some having better records of adherence to human rights principles than others. These principles include supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and avoidance of arbitrariness.
Other important facets of law include evidence and procedure. Evidence is testimony or documents presented to a judge or jury to help them make a decision in a case. Procedural law includes the rules of civil, criminal and bankruptcy procedure as well as other legal issues.
Some important areas of law include taxation, banking and financial regulation, family law, employment law, housing law and international law. Taxation law entails regulations concerning value added tax, corporate and personal income tax, and sales taxes. Banks and financial institutions must comply with laws about capitalization, lending standards, and the safety of investments to insure against catastrophic economic failures such as the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Employment law concerns the rights of workers, including wages, hours, job security, and workplace harassment. Family law involves divorce and custody proceedings, as well as property and spousal rights. International law encompasses matters such as war, asylum, immigration and international treaties. Space law is a growing area of interest, encompassing the rights of nations to land in outer space and the rights of people to travel across national borders.