Law is the set of rules a society or government creates and enforces to govern its citizens, businesses and activities. It can be seen as a source of social cohesion and stability, or it can be viewed as an instrument for controlling dissent and change. The term law can also be used to refer to a professional career as a lawyer, judge or other legal officer. Law has many branches, but the core subjects are usually classified as criminal law; contract law; and property law.
Criminal laws govern the behaviour of people and organisations that are deemed to be harmful to society, and they provide a basis for punishments such as imprisonment and fines. They are generally based on moral principles, although some can be grounded in religion.
A society can regulate its behaviour through a variety of mechanisms, including criminal and civil laws, contracts, regulations, and treaties. A central theme of law is the notion of rights, with a person having a right to their own property, liberty and life. A right can be derived from the constitution, a written document such as a contract or treaty, or by judicial decision.
The practice of law involves interpreting these laws, advising clients on their rights and obligations, representing them in court, or making decisions as part of a judicial process. As such, it is a source of debate on issues such as the legitimacy and fairness of particular laws.
Law can also encompass the activities of governments, businesses and communities, with different types of legal systems in use around the world. In general, the law aims to keep peace, maintain the status quo, protect individual rights, prevent social unrest, preserve minorities against majorities and promote social justice. The degree to which it fulfils these objectives can vary depending on the political and cultural context of a nation.
The study of law is a broad academic field, encompassing legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It has also become an increasingly important profession.
For a discussion of the legal system in a specific country, see the entry for that country; or the article on a specific topic such as business law, contract law, criminal law, property law, public law, or terrorism. In the wider sense, law also includes laws concerning science and technology; aviation law; air law; bankruptcy; civil procedure and criminal procedure; censorship; evidence law; maritime law; medical jurisprudence; and constitutional law. See also law and power. Law can also include the practice of a religion, such as Jewish halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law.