Law is a system of rules created and enforced by society or government institutions. It can be enforced by a group or individual legislators, resulting in statutes; by an executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by courts through precedent, a common feature of common law systems. Private individuals may also create legal binding contracts, including arbitration agreements, to resolve disputes outside the usual court litigation process. Law can be defined in many ways, but it usually consists of four elements: setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.
The study of law aims to understand how laws are made, applied, and interpreted, as well as the way they interact with one another. The term ‘law’ covers a broad range of subject areas, encompassing the fields of contract law; criminal law and procedure; labour law (including workers’ rights and the relationship between employer and trade unions); medical jurisprudence; and property law, covering people’s rights and duties toward their tangible property and their financial assets.
It is possible for the study of law to be divided into the broader categories of public and private law, but even within these broad categories there are numerous sub-fields. For example, intellectual property law involves the ownership of things people create, such as art, music and literature, whereas corporate or trust law regulates the way in which money is put into investments, like pension funds for retirement, with particular rules about the way these are managed and controlled. Tort law helps people make compensation claims when someone’s actions have injured them or damaged their property.
Different approaches to the study of law exist, which reflect different philosophies about its nature and purpose. Utilitarian theories, like those of John Austin and Jeremy Bentham, argue that law is a set of commands backed by the threat of sanctions, issued by a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. Others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argue that law reflects the fundamental moral principles encoded in natural laws. Legal systems vary in the extent to which these differing views influence them, but all law studies share certain basic characteristics.