The Basics of Law

Law is a body of rules created and enforced by human institutions to regulate conduct, establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. It also ensures that government and private actors are accountable to the people and respect their property, contracts and procedural rights. The legal system is a crucial institution because it provides an alternative to conflict and allows the peaceful resolution of disagreements.

The law is divided into three broad areas, but many of the subjects overlap and are interrelated:

Civil law

This system focuses on personal freedoms and ownership of property. It includes contracts, property and commercial law, and has its origins in the medieval Code Merchant. It was later incorporated into countries’ local laws and replaced the earlier splintered traditions. It is still in use today, particularly in the former colonies of continental European powers, and in some Pacific islands.

Criminal law, by contrast, involves the punishment of a crime. It is the basis of a state’s justice system, along with its courts and prosecution service. It has its roots in the need for retribution for crime and a desire to control violence, corruption and disorder.

Public law encompasses the activities of the public sector and the regulation of private businesses that provide public goods or services, such as water, energy, telecommunications and transport. Its origins lie in the need for a degree of social responsibility, especially since privatisation took over management of many public services and utilities. It also entails the law of taxation and the constitution, along with the law on the military and the laws governing war.

Labour law is the study of a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade unions, and concerns collective bargaining, the right to strike, and the minimum wage. It is a complex subject, and is related to other issues involving social inequality and economic change.

Family law, on the other hand, covers marriage and divorce proceedings, child rights and the division of property in the event of separation. It is also connected to the rights and responsibilities of families, including parental authority and the right to privacy. Its roots in ancient custom and tradition are often obscured by a secular culture.

A legal system should be transparent, accessible and fair, allowing for the redress of grievances. Precedents should be set based on the principles of equity and justice, and judges should be allowed to adapt the rules to societal changes and new needs through interpretation and creative jurisprudence.

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