Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise nature is a matter of ongoing debate, but the fundamental purpose of law is to ensure that people adhere to an established will. This will may be expressed by a collective legislature through statutes, or by the executive branch through decrees and regulations, or it may be established through court precedent in “common law” jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements.
Law covers a broad range of subjects, from the criminal law (which deals with offenses such as murder and theft) to administrative law (which sets standards for businesses and governments) to international law, including human rights and environmental laws. A significant area of law involves contracts, which are the basis for most commercial transactions.
Many fields of law are specialized, such as patent law, which is concerned with protecting intellectual property rights; family law, which is the discipline that judges use to determine the custody and care of children; and tax law, which sets minimum standards for business taxation. A recent development is space law, which deals with the issues that arise in outer space.
Because law has a significant impact on people’s lives, it is important to understand how the legal system works in order to be an effective citizen and participant. In addition to the basics of legal terminology, it is necessary to familiarize oneself with the processes by which laws are made and applied.
Jurisprudence is the study of laws and the legal system, and it encompasses areas such as philosophy, ethics, and sociology. It is also possible to specialize in particular areas of law, such as the law of torts or the law of evidence.
Lawyers are those who practice law, and they must be licensed to do so by a governing body. Modern lawyers achieve a distinct professional identity through a rigorous legal procedure that typically includes successfully passing a qualifying exam, and obtaining a specific academic degree (e.g., a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Civil Laws, or a Juris Doctor degree).
Other terms in the field of law include:
civil law – A legal system based on Roman and Germanic ideas, which is prevalent throughout Europe and in about 40% of the world’s countries; and common law – A legal system in which decisions by courts are considered on equal footing with statutes passed through legislative processes and regulations issued by the executive branch.
lawsuit – A legal action started by a plaintiff, who alleges that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty and caused him harm. The plaintiff’s attorneys are called litigants, and the judge who decides the case is called a justice. A judge may decide a case without a jury in some cases, which is called a bench trial. The pool from which actual jurors are chosen is called a jury pool, and the process by which the jurors are selected is called voir dire.