The Basics of Law

Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It may be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through case-law, referred to as common law. Law may also be created by private individuals, who are bound by contractual and voluntary agreements.

Law has a variety of purposes, and the principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The nature of law varies from nation to nation. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it is likely to oppress minorities or its own political opponents. An aspiration for democratic rule or greater legal rights is a constant theme of political and legal life.

There are a wide range of different theories about what law is and why it should exist, including utilitarian theory, natural law, and metanormatative theory. Utilitarians believe that the principal purposes of law are to provide security and promote prosperity. Natural lawyers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believe that a just legal system must reflect an underlying moral order and be unchanging. Metanormatives, such as Hart, believe that law is a normative social practice, which gives rise to reasons for action.

The different branches of law include administrative, civil, criminal, family, labor, maritime, property and tort law. Civil procedure concerns the rules that courts must follow as trials and appeals proceed, and the rules of evidence involve which materials are admissible in a court of law for a case to be built. Family law, criminal law and civil rights are all examples of branches of law that deal with specific issues such as divorce; child custody; racial and sexual discrimination; and civil rights violations.

The law influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. For an exposition of the way law shapes these areas see agency; air law; bankruptcy; carriage of goods; commercial transaction; contract; constitutional law; criminal law; family law; immigration; international law; property law; and procedural law. For an examination of how the law relates to a particular political structure, see constitution; ideology; and political party. For an examination of the relationship between law and religion, see shari’ah; Jewish law; and Talmud. The law is a major source of political power in many nation-states, and a nation’s laws can be used to restrict freedoms, control economic development, and define the boundaries of its territory. A political constitution, written or tacit, contains the law that a nation-state enshrines in its national and international relations. It can also be a powerful tool for promoting democracy and human rights. In contrast, an autocratic regime may suppress these values and limit the autonomy of its citizens. A constitutional republic, on the other hand, embodies these principles in its laws and constitution. It is often said that the ideal of a constitutional republic is “the law in the hands of the people.” This is based on the assumption that people know what is best for themselves, and will act according to moral values when left free from external interference.