Law is a wide-ranging field that encompasses many branches of jurisprudence. Its study is the source of much scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. In addition, it raises important questions concerning equality, fairness and justice that touch upon the very fabric of a society.
Laws are a set of rules that a human community agrees to abide by and enforce in order to govern its social life. Laws are often based on empirical observations and social convention, but they may also be rooted in religious doctrine or divine revelation. Laws are not just a guide to human conduct; they are the basis of all of our social systems.
In a modern democratic state, laws are usually formulated by elected representatives. They are then enforced by courts. The judicial process is guided by a body of jurisprudence established in the common law tradition, and further developed through the enactment of statutes by legislative bodies.
The primary functions of law in most societies are to keep the peace, maintain social stability and the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and allow for ordered social change. These societal concerns vary from nation to nation, and some legal systems are better equipped to serve them than others. For example, an authoritarian government may be able to keep the peace and maintain stability, but it can also oppress minorities and oppose social justice.
In terms of defining the boundaries of law, the term “law” includes both a positive and natural law. Positive law is the system of enforceable statutes and other regulations that is developed through the legislative branch of government, while natural law is the ethical and moral foundation for a society’s jurisprudence.
Natural law is derived from the principles of right reason, and it is supported by a faith in God and his authority over man. Its principles include the right to life, freedom, property and religious liberty. It also includes a moral duty to respect the dignity of all persons, to treat others as one would wish to be treated, and to avoid coercion or violence.
A variety of specialized areas of law are also found in most nations. For example, contracts law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services for monetary value; competition law, which dates back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade doctrine, is used to combat businesses that try to distort market prices at the expense of consumer welfare; and property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects and intangible assets (such as intellectual properties). In the United States, these fields are further subdivided into dozens of categories. To be called a lawyer in a specific area of law, a person must obtain a degree from an accredited law school and pass a bar exam administered by a state or territory’s governing body. Various other credentials are also required in some countries to work in the practice of law.