Law is a system of rules that society develops and uses to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The word “law” is often used to refer specifically to criminal laws, but it can also include civil and other types of legislation, as well as legal proceedings, including trials, appeals, and court procedures. A lawyer is someone who practices law, and the term is often used to refer to a person who has been granted the professional title of barrister or doctor of law.
Law consists of all the rules, regulations, and customs that govern the behavior of individuals and groups within a society. It may be a set of principles, rules, or codes that establish what is considered acceptable or forbidden and the punishments to be imposed for breaking those rules. A law can be based on written, unwritten, or oral traditions, and it can be influenced by religion, culture, and custom.
A legal system can have many purposes, such as (1) keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, (2) preserving individual rights, (3) protecting minorities against majorities, (4) promoting social justice, and (5) providing for orderly social change. Some legal systems are better at serving these goals than others. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it is likely to oppress its own people and to suppress dissenting views. A democratic country is more likely to protect its citizens’ rights and to promote social justice, but it may have difficulties implementing changes that are needed quickly.
Legal systems are based on either common or civil law. In common law countries, decisions by judges are generally acknowledged as “law” and placed on equal footing with legislative statutes. This is called the doctrine of precedent and helps to ensure that courts dealing with similar cases reach consistent results. Civil law countries have comprehensive, codified systems of laws that are easily accessible to judges and citizens.
Some lawyers believe that law reflects innate moral principles. These lawyers are sometimes referred to as natural or moral lawyers. They have various theories about the origin of law and its role in society. For example, one theory is that law is a set of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from an all-powerful sovereign that imposes an obligation to obey. Other lawyers, such as John Austin and Jeremy Bentham, have developed utilitarian theories about the nature of law that are less concerned with morality than with the promotion of social good. The law can be interpreted in many different ways, and its definition is constantly changing as society evolves. Nevertheless, the basic principles are timeless. For example, it is still illegal to steal in most places, and the penalty for breaking that law is usually imprisonment or a fine. An unauthorized invasion of privacy can also be punished by law. A person who breaks the law is said to be in contempt of court.