Law is a system of rules and policies that governs the actions of individuals and society as a whole. It encompasses a wide variety of issues and fields, from the rights of immigrants to the rules of a courtroom. People are most familiar with laws relating to crime and punishment, but the scope of law extends to family, property, business transactions and more.
The concept of law has a long history and varies greatly from place to place. In many nations the law is based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia. In other places, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, the law is developed through a combination of human elaboration and judicial interpretation. The precise nature of law is a subject of ongoing debate. Some theorists, such as Max Weber, reshaped thinking on the role of government by questioning the traditional concept of law as a set of rights and duties imposed by an external authority. The law is also a fundamental aspect of a democracy, providing the structure and security for democratic processes to operate.
In a “common law” legal system, decisions made by judges and barristers are recognized as law on equal footing with statutes enacted through legislative process and regulations issued by the executive branch of government. This is called the “doctrine of precedent” or stare decisis. Appeals are also a feature of common law systems, where higher courts may review the decision of lower courts or tribunals for errors in procedure or to change a ruling.
There are many specialized areas of law, from patent and copyright to taxation and labour law. Competition law, for example, seeks to control businesses who use their economic power to distort market prices for their own advantage and the disadvantage of consumers. It draws on a long tradition of regulation, from Roman decrees against price fixing to English restraint of trade legislation and U.S. antitrust laws.
Other specialized areas of law include immigration and nationality law, which covers the right to live and work in a nation-state that is not one’s own and to acquire or lose citizenship. Family law covers marriage, divorce and children’s rights. Criminal law deals with offenses against public order and the safety of persons and their property.
A number of professions, such as attorneys, solicitors and barristers, police officers, prosecutors and defenders, probation officers and judges, provide the legal infrastructure for law to operate in a modern society. There are also many organizations that advocate for civil and human rights, and a growing number of citizens who volunteer to assist the judiciary and other parts of the government in carrying out law’s functions. See also: legal profession; legal education; legal studies; jurisprudence; judicial process; and law, social science.