Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human conduct. Often, law is seen as an attempt to promote and protect certain values in society, such as the preservation of peace, social order, individual liberty or property rights, freedom of religion or expression and equal opportunity. It is also a major source of scholarly inquiry in fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
There are four basic purposes of law, which are commonly referred to as the “rules of justice”: to establish standards; to maintain order; to resolve disputes; and to ensure equal access to justice. Although these functions vary from country to country, many of the same legal principles apply across traditions.
The premise of the rule of law is that those who make and enforce laws are held accountable by their peers and by the public. Judges, for example, are bound by an oath to interpret the law fairly and not show bias. Judges should only make a decision when the facts are clear and there is no doubt as to what the law is. Blackstone believed that judges were “depositories of the law and living oracles” whose decisions should be taken seriously.
A well-ordered society requires a system of law that respects individual rights and allows for peaceful conflict resolution. Laws set limits on the activities of governments, police forces and public officials and ensure that their actions are transparent. It is a fundamental principle that all citizens should have the same access to justice and fair treatment by their government, police force and judiciary.
Some legal systems are explicitly based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law. These are supplemented by additional sources of law through interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.
Other branches of law include criminal and civil, which deal with the resolution of lawsuits or disputes between individuals or groups. For example, competition law – which includes antitrust and anti-monopoly legislation – addresses businesses that attempt to manipulate market prices or otherwise distort the price of goods at the expense of consumers.
Laws also cover areas such as intellectual property, company law and commercial contracts. These regulations are designed to keep the economy in good health, protecting against the risks of financial crises such as the Great Depression of 1929 or other dangers like price instability and environmental degradation. Laws also establish minimum standards for banking and finance, such as capital adequacy or interest rate regulation. This ensures that financial institutions have sufficient funds to repay their debts in the event of insolvency or bankruptcy, as well as establishing rules for investment. Laws also cover issues such as taxation, consumer protection and international law. These laws are developed by a variety of agencies and bodies, such as central banks, national and regional governments, professional associations and trade unions. They are implemented and enforced through the machinery of a nation-state.