Law is a body of rules that regulates the behavior of a community and enforces those rules through penalties. It may be created by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or by an executive, generating decrees and regulations, or it can be established through case law, based on court decisions. Law may also be written in a constitution or tacitly encoded in custom, and private individuals can create legally binding contracts and agreements to govern their dealings. Various branches of law govern specific aspects of people’s lives, such as contract law (which regulates agreements for the exchange of goods or services), property law (which determines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible and intangible assets), and criminal law (which sets out the punishments for crimes).
Law has many purposes: to keep peace, maintain the status quo, resolve disputes, and protect liberties and rights. Some legal systems are more effective at achieving these goals than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain social stability but might oppress minorities or political opponents, while a democratic government is more likely to promote liberty and social justice.
The nature of law makes it unique among human activities. Unlike other disciplines and fields, which allow for empirical verification of statements, laws have both a descriptive and prescriptive character, indicating what people ought to do or not do.
This dichotomy is reflected in the terms used to describe law:
civil law – The system of law that governs civil relations between private individuals. This includes marriage, divorce, contracts, and property. It is the counterpart of common law, which consists of case law and statutes.
criminal law – The system of laws that punishes crimes, such as homicide and burglary. It is the counterpart of civil law, which covers non-criminal matters such as divorce, contracts, and property.
equity law – A type of civil suit that seeks damages rather than restitution. Such suits can include breach of contract, negligence, and slander.
constitutional law – The body of principles that governs the relationship between a state and its citizens, such as the separation of church and state. It is the counterpart of common law, civil law, and canon law.
judicial process – The sequence of steps a person or group must go through to have their grievances heard in the courts, including the summoning of witnesses and the issuance of subpoenas. It also includes the deliberations of a jury and the preparation of transcripts of court proceedings.
jurors – The members of a trial jury, who are often chosen by lottery. They are sworn to secrecy during deliberations and must be free from outside influences, such as news stories or personal relationships.
judge – The person who presides over a trial. Judges are sworn to uphold the law and to ensure that all parties are treated fairly.
trial court – The court in which a lawsuit is brought.
writ – A formal letter from a court ordering someone to appear before it and present evidence or answer questions.