Law is a system of rules and regulations that a society or government creates and enforces. These rules set out how a person may live, work and do business. They can also govern how a person is treated by others. The main purposes of the law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties.
People in different societies have a variety of ideas about what the law is and how it should be made and applied. For example, some people believe that the law should not limit freedoms or treat people equally while others think that it is important for the law to be clear and enforceable. These arguments are part of a long debate about the nature of law.
The law is the basis for a nation’s political and social order, but the law differs from country to country. Nations that are ruled by authoritarian governments often fail to fulfill the four principal functions of the law: keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individuals against oppressive majorities and promoting social justice. In contrast, nations ruled by democracies are more likely to achieve these goals, but they may not do so perfectly.
A democracy relies on citizens to make laws and to vote for representatives to represent them in the legislature and in other branches of government. The democratic process allows for checks and balances, which prevent any one branch of the government from becoming too powerful. For this reason, the constitutions of many democracies include a clause about separation of powers, which divides power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government.
In more traditional and conservative countries, such as the United States, a constitutional republic is based on the principle that the legislature, or Congress, and the executive branch, are not allowed to exceed their budgets. The judiciary, or courts, can interpret the Constitution and decide whether or not certain laws are constitutional.
The law encompasses a vast range of subjects and issues. This article only touches upon the basics of the legal system, but for an examination of specific fields see administrative law; air law; bankruptcy; contract law; criminal law; family law; maritime law; and medical jurisprudence. For articles describing the relationship of the law to political structures and systems, see censorship; crime and punishment; and police. For an examination of the role of the law in the context of military conflict, see war, law of. Also see articles on legal training and education; legal ethics; and legal philosophy.