Law is the set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.
The law governs the relationships among people, among individuals and between private entities such as businesses and governments. It encompasses a wide variety of topics, including contract law, property law and criminal law. It also includes legal principles such as equity, equality and justice. Law informs everyday life in a broad variety of ways, from the purchase of a bus ticket to trading options on a derivatives market. It is a source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
A fundamental element of law is that it imposes what is right, rather than leaving this to the individual to decide for himself. As such, the law cannot require actions which are unattainable, or force people to do things which are beyond their capabilities. Moreover, the law is only as valid as it is enforceable by those with the power to do so.
In a legal system, the law is defined by a combination of statutes passed through legislature and regulations issued by the executive branch, as well as the decisions of a judge or barrister. It is not unusual for the latter to rely on precedent, or a case which has previously been decided under similar facts, to determine how he will rule in a given dispute. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis.
Legal systems vary considerably across the globe, with each having different philosophies as to the purpose of the law. Some may serve to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, while others are designed to protect minorities against majorities, preserve individual rights and promote social change. The law also has a strong relationship to politics and can be used as a tool for oppression or liberation.
Some laws are considered to be a “natural law” because they are based on a philosophy of fairness and the dignity of human beings. Others, such as the law of gravity, are considered to be a “scientific law” because they are based on mathematical formulas which can be tested and proved. However, a scientific law is not always completely immutable; it can be modified or changed by future scientific research.
The most important function of a legal system is to provide a forum for the resolution of disputes between people and businesses. Disputes can be of a civil nature (such as a lawsuit over a contract) or criminal in nature, involving the punishment of a wrongdoer by a state or government. The law can also be a forum for arguing political issues, such as land reform or foreign policy. It can be the source of controversy when it appears to favor or disadvantage a particular group or individual, or to reflect the views of a particular religious organization.