Law is a system of rules that establishes standards for behavior, defines relationships between people, and settles disputes. It has been described as an art, a science, and an instrument of justice. Law influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is a complex matter, and its precise definition is a source of debate. However, a few general principles can be discerned. Law should be clear and publicized; it should be fair, equal, and stable. It should ensure human rights as well as property and contract rights. It should be administered by competent, ethical representatives and neutrals who reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
Law can be divided into a number of branches, each dealing with a particular type of agreement, relationship or crime. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services; tort law deals with wrongful harm, such as an automobile accident or defamation of character; and property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible personal possessions, such as homes or books. Criminal law punishes offenses against a state or local community.
The laws of a society are shaped by its political structures, which can vary greatly from nation to nation. The law can also be influenced by religious beliefs, such as the ten commandments or Islamic Sharia. In addition, the law may evolve through scientific research or discoveries that contradict previously held beliefs.
In some countries, legislatures codify and consolidate their laws; others retain the tradition of common law, which is judge-made. In the United States, for example, judges follow precedent established in a previous case or by the Constitution. The Constitution and other federal law are called statutes. State and local laws are called ordinances.
The legal profession has long been a subject of study and debate, with many schools of thought. One important branch of law is constitutional law, which is the body of rules that governs a nation’s constitutional democracy and other democratic institutions. Another is statutory law, which is the set of rules that a legislature creates to regulate commerce and other aspects of a society.
The laws of a society are also impacted by the cultural and social norms that influence people’s behavior. For example, the laws of a culture might emphasize honor and shame, which affects how people treat each other. Other cultural influences include religion, morals and ethics, and economics. People also have differing opinions about what should be considered a law, for instance, whether a certain behavior is legal or illegal. In addition, different types of law might have different implications for an individual’s freedoms and liberties. This is a topic that could be covered in many articles. The Law article in this encyclopedia is only intended to provide an overview of some basic concepts related to the law. For more detailed information, the reader is encouraged to consult other articles on this site and elsewhere in the encyclopedia. These articles include: