Law is the system of rules and regulations that a society or government develops to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It may also refer to a branch of this system such as criminal or civil law, or it can mean the people who work within the legal framework. The phrase law and order refers to the state of a society in which these laws are enforced and social life goes on smoothly.
The fundamental purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. The law is a complex and evolving social system, and there are numerous different branches of it. Contract law governs the agreement of parties to exchange goods and services, and it includes everything from buying a bus ticket to trading derivatives on the stock market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties to tangible property, such as houses or cars, and intangible assets like bank accounts and shares. Civil law deals with lawsuits between individuals, and criminal law punishes conduct that harms the community as a whole.
One of the most important aspects of a well-functioning legal system is The Rule of Law, an ideal which has been cherished in Western politics for centuries. This requires that the law should be enforceable, public and accessible. It also requires that people respect and comply with the law even when they disagree with it, and accept legal determinations of their rights and responsibilities. It also means that a government should not interfere with the independence of the judiciary or other independent watchdog bodies. The rule of law is a complex ideal, and it has been shaped by many ideas over the centuries, including those of philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu, and more recently by sociologists such as Max Weber.
In the modern world, the most common source of law is legislation by a political authority. This is a process that can vary enormously, from democratic processes to dictatorships. The legitimacy of this process is a subject of great debate, and there are regular revolts against established authorities. The law can also be influenced by religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia and the Christian canon, although these are rarely binding in legal terms.
A less formal but equally significant source of law is a judge’s own sense of right and wrong. This can be informed by the prevailing culture and tradition, but can also be influenced by personal convictions, intuition and a deep knowledge of the facts of a case. This form of law is often referred to as natural law or jurisprudence, and it can be a rich source of research for scholars interested in legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. For example, there is a great deal of scholarly debate about whether judges should be allowed to express their opinions about the morality of laws they are considering enforcing. This issue is especially pronounced when dealing with controversial issues such as abortion, sex or gay marriage.