Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It may be state-enforced, resulting in statutes or regulations, or privately enforced by contracts or other agreements. Laws may be based on a constitution or other written or tacit documents, or on societal customs or religious beliefs. The law shapes politics, history and society in many ways, and serves as a mediator between people.
The concept of law is broad and complex, involving both private and public laws and varying greatly from country to country. In most nations, the power to make and enforce law is a political power vested in the government. This political landscape is a significant determinant of the extent to which law is effective, stable and well-understood by citizens. It also influences whether core human, procedural and property rights are enshrined in law and effectively applied.
Legal systems vary, with some countries using civil law, where statutes govern most matters, while others use a common law system, where judge-made precedent (called “case law”) binds lower courts. Other systems, including some religious communities, follow Sharia law, a set of Islamic moral principles for governing the community.
While the laws of a nation are determined by the people who form its government, it is the responsibility of those who administer it to ensure that the laws are fair and just, and that individuals are not unfairly discriminated against. A fundamental principle of the rule of law is that all people, regardless of their background or social class, must be subject to the same law. This is achieved through measures such as separation of powers, participation in decision-making, accountability to the law, impartiality and transparency.
Various theories of law have been developed, ranging from Aristotle’s philosophy of justice and the concept of natural right, to modern theories of law such as the law of property and the law of contracts. The law is an area of study and research for a wide variety of scholars, including philosophers, economists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and behavioral scientists.
The practice of law is regulated in most nations by an independent governing body such as a bar association, bar council or law society, and lawyers acquire distinct professional identity through specified procedures, such as successfully passing a qualifying examination. Lawyers must also have a formal education in law, normally leading to the award of a degree such as a Bachelor of Laws or a Juris Doctor. Generally, these requirements are designed to promote integrity and professionalism in the legal profession. They are in part motivated by the desire to protect the interests of consumers of legal services and prevent conflicts of interest. They are also intended to limit the influence of financial considerations on the judiciary and to encourage participation by the public in the development of the law. They also serve to safeguard the independence of the legal system.