Law is a system of rules that a government or community develops to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The term can also be used to refer to the legal profession, which consists of all those who advise people on their rights, represent them in court, or give decisions and punishments.
Legal systems vary widely, and the precise nature of law is a subject of intense debate. The broadest definition of law relates to the body of principles and precedents that govern an area or activity. The specifics of law are defined by a given society’s culture, history, and values. For example, property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property (real estate), while contract law regulates the exchange of goods and services; criminal law defines the crimes that warrant punishment; and administrative law defines governmental processes such as taxation, immigration, and unemployment.
The primary purposes of law are to (1) keep the peace and maintain the status quo; (2) preserve individual rights; (3) protect minorities against majorities; (4) promote social justice; and (5) allow for orderly social change. However, the extent to which these objectives are achieved is dependent on the nature of the state and its political institutions. For example, an authoritarian regime may achieve the first two goals but oppress minorities and its own citizens. In contrast, a constitutional republic may foster freedom of speech and religion while maintaining the peace.
Ideally, the law should provide uniformity and certainty to the administration of justice. For example, a judge should not be allowed to make a different decision in one case than another, since this would be unfair to the parties involved. Blackstone wrote that judges are “the depositories of the law; the living oracles, who must decide all cases which occur upon the bench, and whose judgments must be received with the highest regard. Moreover, they are bound by an oath to decide according to the law of God and reason.”
The process by which a law is developed begins when a member of a legislature proposes a bill. The bill is then assigned to a committee for study. If the bill is released, it is debated and voted on. If the majority votes in favor of the bill, it passes to the other house of the legislature (in a bicameral legislature, the Senate and House). The Senate version of the bill is then compared with the House’s version to resolve any differences. Once the Senate and House agree on a final form for the bill, the executive branch approves it and it becomes law. The law is not final, however, because a president can reject a bill by signing a veto message explaining why.