The Basics of Law

Law is a system of rules that governs the behaviour of people in a given society. Most countries have a constitution for the overall framework and further laws for matters of detail, such as how to treat prisoners. The laws are enforced by police and courts, who punish people who break them.

The rules of law are created by a governing body, such as a parliament or congress, that is elected (chosen) to represent the interests of the governed. These bodies are generally limited in power to prevent them from becoming too powerful and imposing their own agenda. Most societies have a judiciary, which is made up of judges who resolve disputes between people and decide whether or not a person charged with a crime is guilty.

Different types of law cover a wide range of activities. There are laws on intellectual property, such as copyright and patents; labour law; family law; maritime law; tax law; medical jurisprudence; and trust law. There are also criminal, civil and administrative laws, and laws on contracts, torts, property and other commercial activities.

In some societies, the law is based on religious precepts and practices, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, or on canon law in some church communities. In other systems, such as Western constitutional democracy and parliamentary democracies, the law is derived from further human elaboration on religious principles, such as interpretation (Qiyas), jurisprudence (Ijma) and precedent.

The 17th century Lord Chief Justice of England, Edward Coke, was a leading exponent of the ‘case law’ approach to interpreting and developing the law. He wrote several legal texts that collected and integrated centuries of case law into a cohesive whole. His works continue to be used by lawyers worldwide. Other theories of law are based on social science, such as Hans Kelsen’s ‘pure theory’ of the law, which describes it as a ‘normative science’ that defines certain rules to be abided by.

The history of the development of law has not been a process of logic; it has been driven by felt necessities, popular moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious prejudices and even the need to maintain the status quo. For this reason, it is important to examine the context of a particular piece of legislation or court decision, rather than simply using it as a tool for analysis. For further discussion of this, see the articles on legal training and legal ethics.

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