Law is a set of rules that social or governmental institutions create and enforce to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of ongoing debate and has been described as both a science and an art. The discipline encompasses many different fields of law, including administrative, criminal, employment, property and constitutional law. It is important to understand the role of law in a society, as it can help to ensure that power is used fairly and that individuals do not face discrimination based on their wealth or status.
The purpose of laws can vary widely, but four broad purposes have been identified: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Some legal systems may serve one or more of these purposes more effectively than others. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain social stability, but it may also oppress minorities or resist social change.
A law can be enacted by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; it can be created by the executive through decrees or regulations; or established by judges through binding precedent (which is particularly common in courts of appeal). Individuals can also make legally-binding contracts that establish alternative ways to resolve disputes that are more suited to their circumstances than standard court litigation.
Legal theory is the study of law and the structure of legal systems, and includes a number of philosophical approaches to the nature of the law. For example, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that law is a system of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign who enjoys supremacy over his subjects. Those who follow the ‘natural law’ school, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argue that laws reflect essentially moral principles of unchanging natural justice.
In addition to studying the laws themselves, people who study law must also be familiar with the process of drafting and revising legislation. This can be an arduous and time-consuming task, but the skills gained through this process are valuable in other fields of work. Other topics of interest to students of law include criminal procedure, civil procedure, evidence law and jurisprudence.