What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Its precise definition is a topic of intense debate.

The legal profession, whose practitioners specialize in interpreting and enforcing the law, has its own vocabulary with a long list of terms and concepts. These include:

Evidence – A document or statement containing facts that support an assertion. The types of evidence vary and may include testimony, documents, and physical objects. circumstantial evidence – Evidence that supports an inference or conclusion based on the overall pattern of events, but does not provide a direct link between the defendant and the crime. jury – A group of people chosen by a judge to hear and decide the facts in a trial. The jury’s decision determines whether the defendant is found guilty or not.

arraignment – The formal process where a criminal defendant is brought before a judge, told the charges against him or her, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty. felony – A crime that carries the possibility of severe punishment, such as imprisonment or death.

civil law – A system of laws that is used in about 60% of the world’s nations. It is based on concepts, categories and rules that are largely derived from Roman law and the canon law of the Catholic Church, with influences from local custom and culture. It contrasts with the common law system, which relies on judge-made precedent in common law jurisdictions.

case law – A court’s use of decisions in earlier cases that have facts and law similar to the dispute at hand. Unless overturned, these precedents guide the judges in deciding future cases with similar issues.

court – A building where a court of appeals or other higher level court holds hearings and decides cases. A court of appeals, for example, is a higher-level court in the United States that tries cases from lower courts.

docket – A record of the activities of a court, including all documents filed and cases heard. A federal appellate court, for instance, maintains a docket that includes detailed information about every case the court has heard or will hear.

en banc – When a higher court hears a case that it considers important enough to allow all of its members to participate rather than the usual quorum of three judges. Federal courts of appeals usually sit in en banc in certain important cases, such as when they decide to review the decision of another federal appeals court.

In a nation, law serves many purposes, such as maintaining peace and the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice, and providing for orderly social change. The effectiveness of a particular system in meeting these goals depends on how well it promotes democracy and protects the rights of individuals.

A government that does not promote democracy may keep the peace and preserve the status quo, but it is more likely to oppress minorities and impair social change. Similarly, a government that protects the rights of its citizens, but not its property, is less likely to be stable.