Law is the set of rules a government or society develops and enforces to deal with crimes, social relationships, and business agreements. It also governs a person’s rights and liberties, and can dictate punishments for violations. The precise definition of law varies across time and place, and is influenced by the culture of a society, but in most countries the legal system includes rules that are generally considered to be enforceable. Those rules can be derived from common or customary practice, from written texts such as statutes and regulations, or from unwritten codes or case law established by judges. Law is enacted and enforced through governmental institutions that can range from a collective legislature to a single executive, with the authority to make or change laws in the form of statutes and regulations.
Some people may use law to control others or as a tool for self-interest, but most governments strive for the rule of law that ensures that all members of a nation respect each other’s rights and liberty. This ideal is most commonly realised through democratic systems, though it can also be found in monarchies and dictatorships. The rule of law demands that all citizens and entities are subject to publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated laws that meet minimum international human rights standards.
The broad categories of law cover a variety of topics, but the most important areas include criminal and civil, business and property. Criminal law deals with offences against the state, such as murder or robbery, while civil law includes such issues as torts (accidents, defamation and unfair treatment), contracts and consumer protection. The field of law also encompasses intellectual property, such as trademarks, patents and copyrights, corporate law and commercial law.
The origin of law can be traced to ancient times, with a large number of laws created and codified by the Roman Empire. These detailed codes grew out of legal scholarship, and were used as guides for later court cases. Roman law was largely replaced with custom and local legislation during the Dark Ages, but it was revived in the 12th century when medieval legal scholars began to research Roman law and create a body of case law that eventually became known as common law.
Blackstone argued that the best way to understand common law was through reading and analysing precedent. This view, which he called stare decisis, holds that decisions made by judges in earlier cases are binding on later ones. This is contrary to the view of some scholars, who argue that the judge’s own sense of right and wrong should influence their decisions. This debate continues to the present day, with some academics arguing that judges should be free to reject laws they consider morally wrong. Other academics have argued that the law should be more transparent and accessible to ordinary citizens. This has led to the development of a number of legal aid services, which are designed to help people who cannot afford to pay for representation in courts.