What is Law?

Law is a system of rules that a society develops to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. It also refers to the people who work in this system, such as lawyers and judges. The study of law encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

The core functions of the legal system are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberty and rights. It is essential that these objectives are respected and enforced by all members of a society, including the police, politicians and public officials. However, the nature of law entails that it cannot demand behaviours which are unattainable, or force individuals to act in ways which they do not wish to. Therefore, the very existence of laws depends on the human ability to reason and make choices.

Although there is no one definition of law, it usually refers to a system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with issues such as crime, business arrangements and social relationships. It may include a body of written legislation, or a collection of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decisions.

In some jurisdictions, legal systems are governed by statute law (enacted by legislature) and case law (decisions of courts). The doctrine of stare decisis means that decisions made by higher courts tend to be followed by lower ones. This ensures that similar cases reach similar conclusions.

Other jurisdictions are governed by civil law or common law. These systems, which cover around 60% of the world, have concepts and categories derived from Roman law, with some influence from canon law and supplemented or modified by local custom. In many countries of Africa, which were once colonized by continental European powers, the civil law tradition has remained. In mixed jurisdictions such as those of the Pacific islands, civil law coexists with a common law or religious legal system.

Other laws deal with specific subjects such as employment, immigration and criminal law. Employment law, for example, sets out the terms of contracts between employees and employers, whilst immigration law covers the right of citizens to live in a country that is not their own, or to acquire and lose citizenship. In addition, areas of law such as family and property are covered by various laws, as are the responsibilities of corporations and banking. All these fields of law are the subject of intense debate and ongoing research. They are also a source of great scholarly inquiry and form the basis for much scholarly writing, often raising profound issues of equality, fairness and justice. The language used in such pieces reflects the level of knowledge and awareness that the reader has of the field, and may take a stand on controversial changes to the law. Examples of this kind of writing include:

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