Law is a set of rules that society or government develops to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The term is also used to refer to the people who work in this system of justice.
The prevailing legal systems of the world are based on a combination of legislation (as codifications or statutes), custom and case law. Legislation may be written or oral and covers everything from the oaths taken by judges to the instructions given to prosecutors. Case law consists of legal principles developed through the judgements made by judges on the basis of specific facts in individual cases. This includes legal maxims and the principles of equity, common sense, or public policy.
A defining feature of laws is that they are normative rather than descriptive or causal, in contrast with empirical science (as the law of gravity) or even social science (as the law of supply and demand). This enables human beings to devise rules that will guide their behavior and to control their relationships within a community.
These core subjects are complemented by numerous other fields of law, which cover almost every aspect of the modern economy and society. For example, contract law deals with the rights and obligations that arise from agreements to exchange goods or services. Property law covers ownership of tangible objects (including land and buildings) and intangible assets, such as money or stocks. Tort law covers compensation for injuries caused by others, whether in automobile accidents or defamation of character. Criminal law covers offences against the state, which are punishable by law.
In addition, there are specialised laws covering particular industries and types of activity. Employment law encompasses the tripartite relationship between employer, employee and trade union, including collective bargaining and the right to strike. Tax law includes a country’s income, corporation and capital taxes. International law deals with the issues arising from the movement of persons across borders and the problem of stateless individuals. And so on.
The main purpose of laws is to provide justice, which is a difficult and often unsatisfactory endeavour. Its success depends on the degree to which those who make and enforce them understand the nature of the social problems they are attempting to solve, and the extent to which their decisions are fair and reasonable. This is a challenge for any state, and in particular one as large and complex as the modern nation-state.
In addition to the political, financial and social challenges facing any state, there are other unique difficulties associated with law. The extension of state power to a wide range of activities and the fact that there are no means for checking the accuracy of authoritative statements in law create special problems which Max Weber and other modern writers have attempted to address. The practice of law is also a source of great controversy, as are the methods of law enforcement and the way in which the judiciary operates. The etymology of the word ‘law’ is also subject to speculation. One of the most popular theories is that it comes from the root ‘lah’, meaning ‘order’. This suggests that it was originally a descriptive word that became, through adoption by other languages, a verb meaning to impose order.