Law is a set of rules and guidelines that governs human behaviour and the interaction between people and their environment. It shapes politics, economics and history in many ways and serves the purposes of setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. It covers a huge range of subjects and there are several ways to approach them:
Law encompasses all the legal instruments that govern relationships between people or between the state and its citizens. It includes laws passed by legislatures, regulations issued by executive departments and agencies and court decisions. It also refers to the body of legal studies, including law schools and universities, which produce lawyers and researchers.
There are two broad areas of law, criminal and civil. Criminal law is about offences against the state, such as murder and robbery, while civil law addresses individual cases such as divorce, defamation of character or a car accident. The law also extends to the conduct of businesses, with company and business law covering the structure and governance of companies, and the way in which contracts are negotiated.
The law is based on the assumption that good, fair and rational behaviour will generally prevail. But it is also based on the shape of the world and the limitations of human capacities. As a result, the legal system cannot mandate behaviours that are unattainable or force people to do things that they are beyond their abilities.
Most countries can be classified as civil or common law jurisdictions, but this distinction is largely one of form rather than substance. The main difference is that in “common law” systems, the decisions made by courts are recognised as law on an equal footing with statutes enacted through the legislative process and regulations enforced by the executive branch. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis.
A third type of law is religious law, which is based on scriptures. There are only a few living cultures that use a religion-based system of governance, but there is growing controversy about whether this is an acceptable and appropriate role for law to play in the modern world.