Law is a body of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, but it has been described as both a science and the art of justice. Law is an essential component of a functioning society because it defines the rights and obligations of individuals, groups and governmental bodies. It also provides the foundation for peaceful change and growth in a society.
Law may be established by a group of legislators, resulting in statutes; by the executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or by judges, resulting in case law. The law may be either civil or criminal in nature. Criminal laws typically include a statutory offense (actus reus) and a mental element (mens rea), while civil law includes such fields as torts, contracts, property and family law.
The purpose of the law is to serve a number of vital functions: to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, preserve individual freedoms, promote social justice and provide for orderly social change. Different legal systems accomplish these purposes differently. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can oppress minority interests and restrict social change.
A legal system can be based on the civil law, common law or religious law. Most modern countries use a mix of civil and common law features, although the distinction between them is largely a matter of historical tradition.
The specific law that a country follows depends on its social and economic conditions and its relations with other nations. In addition to traditional law, many countries have other systems of regulation, including religious law and customary law.
The practice of law involves a number of other fields, such as bankruptcy, administrative law and evidence law. In addition, a judge is required to follow the law in deciding cases, and an attorney represents a client in court proceedings. A clerk of court assists the judge in managing a court’s operations, especially in determining which cases to hear and maintaining records. Prosecutors prosecute criminal cases on behalf of the state, while public defenders represent defendants who cannot afford an attorney in criminal matters. Jurisdiction refers to the legal authority to decide a case, and concurrent jurisdiction exists when two courts share responsibility for a case. A probation officer screens applicants for pretrial release and monitors convicted offenders released under supervision.