Law is the rules and principles that govern people, societies and businesses. The most important functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. There are many specialised fields of law, such as company law, criminal law, labour law and property law. Some laws are explicit, such as the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia, while others develop out of religion through elaboration, such as via Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.
Law is a subject of deep scholarly debate. It is unlike most other disciplines in that it makes normative statements, rather than descriptive or causal ones, about how people ought to behave and what they may require from each other. Thus it raises complex questions about morality, social justice and the proper distribution of goods that are not easily answered by empirical science or behavioural psychology.
Legal systems vary widely around the world, but they have common features. For example, they have to establish the limits of the state’s authority and ensure that citizens are treated fairly. They also have to protect private and personal rights, prevent discrimination, support freedom of speech and the press and provide a system for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Some specialised areas of law include family law, which deals with issues such as divorce proceedings and the custody of children. Employment law covers a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and includes workplace safety and the right to strike. Civil procedure concerns the rules courts must follow as trials and appeals are conducted. Evidence law covers the material that can be used in court cases, for instance which documents are admissible as proof.
Traditionally, the main purpose of law was to keep the peace and maintain the status quo in a country. Modern nationalism has led to a shift from this to the promotion of individual and group rights and the development of democratic political institutions. However, even a democratic government with a benign intent can oppress minorities or cause social change too rapidly for the good of society.
Other goals of law are to promote freedom and equality and to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. A well-developed legal system is essential for economic development and social stability. It can create incentives to invest and innovate, and punish those who misbehave by removing their market access or even prosecuting them for breaking the law. The laws of the state are enforced by the police and other governmental agencies. In the absence of these institutions, private individuals would tend to take on this responsibility themselves, with unpredictable consequences for peace and prosperity. Laws are also created to regulate certain industries, such as finance, energy and water, and to promote the protection of the environment. This can be done through legislation or by industry codes.