Law is the system of rules a nation or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its people. It is also the profession of those who practice or advise on law, or argue cases in court to defend people’s rights and secure justice. Law has many different branches: contract law regulates the exchange of goods or services, tort law deals with injuries to people and their property, criminal law deals with offenses against national, state or local governments, and administrative laws govern the operations of government agencies and departments.
Laws may be enacted by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by an executive, resulting in decrees and regulations; or through the courts, resulting in case law and precedent. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, and arbitration agreements that provide alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard legal litigation.
In general, the purposes of law are to establish standards and maintain order, resolve conflicts, protect liberties and rights, and facilitate social change. The effectiveness of a legal system in serving these functions depends upon the nature of the government and the political landscape in a nation. For example, an authoritarian government might keep the peace and uphold the status quo, but it could also oppress minorities and restrict political opponents. By contrast, a democratic government might encourage peaceful social change while respecting individual freedoms.
Different nations have developed their systems of law differently, reflecting their cultural and historical heritages. In particular, the Roman-derived civil law differs from the English common law tradition developed in the 13th and 14th centuries, which in turn was influenced by Germanic legal thought. Civil law is a code of conduct established by the government and enforced by courts, while common law was developed by judges interpreting existing statutes and cases.
The law in a given jurisdiction can be surprisingly complex, with different levels of courts and legislation having more or less authority than others. A lawyer researching the law in a given situation must first ascertain the facts of a dispute, then locate any relevant statutes and case law to understand how a court would likely rule. In addition, decisions by higher courts and those of earlier cases carry more weight than those of later cases. Finally, the lawyer must interpret and extract principles, analogies and statements by previous courts to understand what “the law” actually is in this particular case. This process is known as legal reasoning. The results are judicial decisions that are then applied to specific situations. This is the basis of the law as we know it today.