Law, in its broadest sense, is the set of rules a society recognises as regulating its behaviour. The principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The legal system is a complex entity, reflecting the diverse nature of human societies. It comprises a range of different elements such as the legislative process, executive decrees and regulations, court decisions, case law, and private contractual agreements. It is a rich source of scholarly inquiry in areas such as history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology, whilst also raising important and complex questions about equality, fairness and justice.
There is no such thing as a single definition of law; rather, there are a number of competing theories as to its nature and purpose. The natural-law school, for example, argues that some rights are “a priori” and cannot be taken away by government; this has been influential in American thinking about civil liberty and the role of law. The more empirically oriented school of thought, however, contends that law is simply the result of the interaction of social and political institutions.
The subject of law covers a vast range of subjects, but can be broadly divided into three categories, though the boundaries between them are often blurred:
Public law concerns statutes and regulations enacted by a legislature (or occasionally by an executive branch), and by judges in common-law jurisdictions through the “doctrine of precedent” – decisions in previous cases are binding on future ones.
Administrative law encompasses the various forms of regulation that govern the management of a nation’s resources and utilities, such as water, energy, airspace, banking and financial markets and taxation. It is concerned with the balancing of individual rights and collective interests, and the harmonisation of national law with international treaties.
Criminal law concerns the prosecution of individuals or groups for actions that are deemed harmful to societal stability and may be punishable by imprisonment or fines. Civil law, which includes torts, contracts, property and family law, deals with the resolution of lawsuits between individuals or organizations.
The study of law is a vast and diverse field, and its practitioners must be skilled in many different disciplines. These include not only jurisprudence and the social sciences, but also mathematics, computer science, economics and philosophy. In addition, the study of law is a constantly evolving endeavour; there are always new developments in science, technology and culture which influence and inspire it. The legal system itself must therefore be flexible enough to cope with this change, while retaining its fundamental principles of consistency and clarity. The law should be clear, publicised and stable; it should be applied evenly across all citizens and communities and should safeguard human rights as well as property and contract rights. It should also be responsive to social and economic change through a combination of legislative rigour, judicious interpretation and creative jurisprudence. Finally, it should be backed up by a rigorous and transparent administration.