Law is the set of rules that governments create and enforce to regulate behavior. It includes laws governing the courts, police, and other social institutions. It serves a number of purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individual rights, promoting social justice, and providing for orderly social change.
Legal systems vary throughout history and in their ability to serve these important purposes. Some work better than others.
Among the most common types of legal system are civil law, common law, and criminal law. These systems are found in most countries around the world.
Civil law (also known as ‘law of nations’) is the main legal system used in many non-European countries, such as China and Africa. It is based on principles of the common law, which originated in England and has since evolved to the present day.
There are several main branches of civil law: property, contract, and criminal law. Each has its own distinct aims and objectives.
Property law is concerned with ownership and possession of land, buildings, and other assets. It also includes the rights of inheritance, and relates to family relations and divorces.
Contract law is concerned with the creation and enforcement of legally binding agreements between two or more people. It involves contracts between business entities, such as corporations and individuals, as well as personal contracts, such as agreements for marriage and births.
Criminal law deals with the punishment of crimes. It is a complex field that includes offenses that are punishable by death, and crimes against federal, state, or local communities.
In modern legal systems, law is mainly codified in statutes, largely adopted by the legislative branch. However, the judiciary retains the right to interpret and apply these statutes in ways that are consistent with the public’s best interests.
Some legal systems, such as the United States, have a doctrine of stare decisis, which obligates lower courts to follow decisions of higher courts when making similar decisions. This is to ensure that the court’s judgments are consistently applied across a wide range of cases.
Lawyers are the professionals who apply legal knowledge and skills to represent people in court, or to give opinions and make decisions on their behalf. They may be referred to as advocates, attorneys, barristers, or solicitors.
They can be employed by a government or independent regulating body such as a bar association, bar council or law society. They are required by law to have a special qualification (e.g. a Bachelor of Laws or a Bachelor of Civil Law), and are constituted in office by legal forms of appointment (being admitted to the bar).
They are subject to professional discipline by their employer, and to ethical codes of conduct, which often involve professional standards of behaviour, such as adherence to the principle of confidentiality. The profession of law is one of the most respected and popular in the world, attracting a wide range of students to study it.