Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Often referred to as the ‘rules of the game,’ laws are a way to guarantee fairness and ensure that individuals follow social norms. Laws can be state-enforced through collective legislative action, resulting in statutes, by executive decree or regulation, or established by judges through precedent (called case law). Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways, both in subtle and profound ways.
A major function of the law is to define and protect civil rights, such as freedom of speech and religion. Another important function is to punish crime and deviance, especially when a crime or other legal violation threatens a state’s safety, health, or welfare. This is known as criminal law or, more broadly, the justice system.
The law is a complicated and multifaceted area of study, with many different disciplines intersecting within it. Nevertheless, there are a few broad definitions of law that are useful to keep in mind when reading or writing about it:
judicial process – The entire set of procedures for conducting and managing a court’s business, including its judging of cases and the keeping of records.
court of appeals – A higher court that reviews the decisions of lower courts in cases they deem important or controversial. Courts of appeal are usually staffed by senior judges, and their decisions are often considered to be authoritative.
felony – A serious offense that can result in severe penalties, such as imprisonment and fines. Felonies are often prosecuted by the federal government, although local governments may also have their own felony laws.
case law – The compilation of judge-made decisions that are used to decide disputes, typically in common law countries. A common legal problem is deciding whether an earlier court decision applies to a current dispute. Generally, case law must be followed, except when a judge can demonstrate that it is wrong or has been misinterpreted.
discovery – The examination of facts and documents in possession of the opponents to help prepare for trial. This is often done before a trial begins and can be conducted by the lawyers or by the court’s staff.
law clerk – An employee of a court who works with the chief judge to manage the flow of cases through the courtroom, and who assists in interpreting the law, drafting legal papers, and maintaining the court’s records. The law clerk is often a specialist in particular areas of the law, such as constitutional law or family law.
The law is a complex and fascinating subject, with a wide range of careers available for those who have a passion for it. For those who have a desire to shape the future of society, the field of law provides an exciting and rewarding career path.
Legal systems vary from nation to nation, and understanding the law is essential to a country’s political stability and economic prosperity. Each year there are revolts against existing political-legal authority, and aspirations for greater rights for citizens.