Law is the body of rules and standards that regulates the behaviour of a society and imposes penalties on those who fail to obey them. It covers a wide range of subjects, from criminal law and property law to family law and labour law. It also includes the law of contracts and the law of tort. The legal system is the institution through which laws are made and enforced, and it varies widely between nations. For example, a nation may employ a common law system where decisions by judges are compiled into law, or a civil law system that relies on codified statutes and judicial decisions of an earlier era.
The main purposes of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. Different systems of law serve these functions better than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may be able to maintain the peace and the status quo but it is unlikely to provide protection for minority interests or to encourage social change. A largely democratic regime, on the other hand, is more likely to meet these objectives.
A country’s legal system is determined by its political landscape and culture. Many Western countries use a common law system, while a number of other nations have civil law systems that rely on a combination of statutes and judicial decisions.
In common law jurisdictions, determining what the law is on any particular issue requires several stages. The first step is to ascertain the facts of the case. Then one must locate and read any relevant statutes and cases, extracting principles, analogies and statements of how courts have ruled on similar issues in the past. More recent decisions and those of higher courts carry more weight than those of lower or lesser courts. Once all the relevant information is gathered, it can be determined what the law on any given situation is.
Some important legal concepts include:
arraignment – The procedure wherein an accused person is brought before the court and told of the charges against them. discovery – The process of examining evidence that is in the possession of one’s opponents, usually before trial. in forma pauperis – The legal procedure whereby an individual can sue without paying court fees on the grounds that they cannot afford them.
The field of law also contains specialised areas such as competition law, which is used to control businesses that exploit their economic power in order to distort market prices or otherwise harm consumers; and consumer law, which seeks to protect the rights of consumers. Another specialized area is international law, which encompasses the relationships between nations and non-nation states, private international law, the law of treaties and the law of supranational organisations.