Law is the set of rules a society imposes on its members to regulate their actions. It governs a wide variety of matters, from contract law to zoning and from taxation to criminal procedure. Law influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is a highly complex and interconnected subject, whose precise definition remains contested. The broadest interpretation of law encompasses a system of social control over individuals, groups and organisations through courts of justice and executive agencies, with a variety of means of applying and enforcing those laws.
Among the most important of these are criminal and civil law, which cover activities such as stealing, murder, sex assault and bribery. Other areas covered by law include statutory and constitutional law, administrative law, the law of property and commercial law. Constitutional law is the set of rules that a country’s parliament, executive or other central body establishes for its territory and population. Statutory law is a collection of legislative statutes (i.e. bills passed by a legislature).
A court of law settles disputes between individuals and between states or countries by adjudicating a case in accordance with the legal principles established by a jurisdiction. The most prominent legal systems are those of the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. These rely on a combination of legislation and judiciary interpretation, with the latter influenced by academic theory and a tradition of case law known as stare decisis.
In “common law” legal systems, judges’ decisions bind lower courts by the doctrine of precedent. They also make up a large part of the judicial record. This differs from the legislative process in “civil law” nations, where a central authority codifies statutes and regulates based on those codes.
A person who practices law is called a lawyer or a barrister. There are several professions which specialise in advising clients on the law and representing them in court cases, including solicitors and crown counsel. Those who study law are called legal scholars or jurists.
Law varies from place to place, depending on the political and economic climate at a given time. Some governments use the law to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, promote social justice or encourage a high level of civic participation; other governments rely on their military and police forces to suppress unrest and to oppress minorities or dissenting views. Some nations have historically used the law to extend their empires over other lands, often in violation of international law. This type of law is sometimes called colonial law. More recently, many developing countries have adopted Western legal models to modernise their governing bodies and legislation.