Law is a system of rules that establishes standards, maintains order, resolves conflicts and protects people’s liberties and rights. It governs a wide range of activities including business transactions, government and social relationships. Laws are generally enacted by a legislative body that represents the public’s interest. They are enforced by police and other agencies, and interpreted by courts. The law is also an expression of a power hierarchy with different levels of authority having their own distinct powers and functions.
The law may be based on written or unwritten constitutions and their encoded rights. It is also influenced by the customs and practices of a society, such as its language and religion. Laws may also be influenced by economic trends, such as the laws of supply and demand. In this way the law shapes politics, economy, history and society in a variety of ways.
It is a complex matter to determine what the law is. A lawyer tries to ascertain what the precise law that applies to a specific situation is. This involves several stages of research and analysis. The first is to locate any relevant statutes and previous cases. Once this is done the next step is to extract principles, analogies and statements made in the previous decisions. These can help one to determine how the court will rule on a particular set of facts.
Many legal concepts have been shaped by philosophical theories, such as utilitarianism, which influenced the development of the modern law and the idea that a law should serve people’s general well-being. However, the philosophies behind laws have also changed as societies and economies evolve. The expansion of military, policing and bureaucratic power over ordinary citizens’ daily lives poses challenges to earlier ideas of accountability that philosophers such as Max Weber could not have anticipated.
In the modern world there are numerous branches of law. The broadest is contract law, which regulates agreements to exchange anything of value, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the derivatives market. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible possessions such as buildings and cars, as well as their intangible property, like bank accounts and shares of stock. Banking law and financial regulation define minimum standards for banks and best practice for investing, in order to protect against the risk of crises like the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
There is also criminal and family law, which deal with disputes and issues such as divorce and parental responsibility. These are all important parts of a society that respects individual rights, provides a safe and secure environment, and is fair to all. It is a balancing act to ensure that the laws are followed, and to provide justice if they are not. The role of the judiciary, a group of judges who are independent of the legislature and the executive, is a key part of this. They are a check on the power of government, and ensure that those who break the law are punished.