Law is a socially and politically defined set of rules that govern people and their activities. Its precise definition remains a matter of debate and scholars have reshaped thinking on its importance in various ways, including as a science (the study of law) or as the art of justice (political and moral questions concerning fair distribution of burdens and privileges in society).
Law is important because it allows society to operate in a predictable and orderly fashion. Its four principal purposes are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. The subject of law is wide and covers almost every aspect of life. It is often subdivided into several areas, with three core subjects presented here for convenience:
Contract law lays down rules for people who exchange goods and services; employment law deals with the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union; and property law sets out people’s rights and duties toward tangible property such as houses and cars. Law also encompasses the rules of criminal procedure – how trials and appeals are conducted – as well as evidence law, which determines what can be used in courts for a case to be built.
Legal systems differ enormously between nations and there is a constant movement towards greater democracy and more rights for citizens, which is partly driven by law-making powers being shifted away from government and into the hands of civil societies. This has been complicated by the rise of powerful states that can wield military and bureaucratic power over the lives of ordinary people in a way that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have imagined. It has further been complicated by the increasing power of the private sector in managing public resources such as water, energy or roads.
Despite these developments, the law’s place in human society is unassailable and it will remain central to how we live our lives and interact with each other. The study of law is a fascinating and complex endeavour, but it is vital to the functioning of our communities, economies and societies.
A general overview of law can be found in this article, but further details can be found by clicking on the links below. This includes articles on a variety of topics, from the history of law to the controversies surrounding specific legal issues. Also included are articles that explore some of the more technical aspects of law, such as a definition of jurisprudence, which is the study of the principles of legal system design and development, and the process of impeachment, which is the method by which high officials in the United States are charged with misconduct and brought to trial. In addition, there are articles that examine some of the broader themes that have emerged from the law’s role in modern society, such as gender and equality, religious freedom and the legalisation of drugs. All these topics are crucial for an informed understanding of the law and its role in our world.