Law is all the rules and principles that govern human relationships, societies, governments and businesses. The study of law is called jurisprudence and it provides an important source of academic inquiry in history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. Law also raises complex questions about the limits of state power, and how a just society should be organised. The field is so diverse that it has given rise to many schools of thought, and triggered profound debates about the nature of the legal system.
The core subjects of law are criminal and civil justice, contracts, property and the rules governing courts. These topics in turn have multiple branches, which can be broadly grouped into three categories:
Criminal law covers behaviour that damages other people or the community as a whole and is punishable by imprisonment and fines. Civil law concerns disputes between individuals or groups and the resolution of those disputes in court. Contract law encompasses any agreements that involve something of value, from a bus ticket to trading options on the stock market. Property law relates to a person’s rights and duties towards tangible assets such as houses, cars and land, but also intangible assets like shares and bank accounts.
There are specialised areas of the law as well. For example, family law involves relationships between husband and wife, children and parents, and a wide range of issues that can arise from these, such as adoption, divorce and spousal support. Environmental law is a broader area of the law which relates to natural resources such as air, water and land, including how they are used and how pollution and waste can be prevented.
Besides these, there are areas of the law which are more specific to each country. For example, labour laws (which govern the relationship between worker, employer and trade union) are different from one country to another, as are the tax systems that apply to companies and individuals. Similarly, the rules that govern how a trial is conducted or which evidence is admissible in court differ from country to country.
The practice of law is regulated in most countries by either the government or an independent body. Modern lawyers gain their distinct professional identity by passing a qualifying examination and undergoing a period of training (called legal practice). They are often referred to as ‘barristers’ or’solicitors’, and may be awarded various titles of respect such as Esquire for those who have achieved greater distinction in the profession. Legal education is typically preceded by an undergraduate degree in a subject such as mathematics or social sciences, and some lawyers pursue higher academic degrees such as a Master of Laws or a Doctor of Law. The legal profession is a highly technical career, and the ethos of professional integrity is central to it. Nonetheless, there is substantial scope for debate over the extent to which judges should be required to consider their own beliefs and moral judgments in the decision-making process.