Law is a system of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.
The laws of physics, for example, tell us that there is an absolute order to the way things happen in nature and that some natural processes are inevitable: a falling object will hit the ground. Moral laws, on the other hand, tell us what is right and wrong: it is wrong to lie or steal, for instance. A law may also be a principle of conduct that is sanctioned by conscience or concepts of natural justice, or a divine will: for instance, the Biblical commandments.
Almost every aspect of human society is covered by some form of law. Some laws are imposed by government: criminal laws punish people who break the rules of their particular community, while civil laws settle disputes between individuals. Law also forms a rich source of scholarly inquiry into history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
Many legal systems are based on the ideas and categories of Roman law and canon law, though they often adapt and supplement them with local custom or culture. The main functions of law are to (1) keep the peace, (2) maintain social stability and (3) allow for orderly social change. Nations that have stable, democratic governments can achieve these goals best. Authoritarian governments can, however, oppress minorities or political opponents, or cause a general breakdown of the law.
In addition to the three major branches of law (criminal, civil and administrative), there are a number of other areas that have been given particular prominence in modern times. These include labour law, which covers the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; contract law, which governs agreements that exchange goods or services for value; property law, which defines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible assets, such as houses or cars; and constitutional law, which deals with the limits of government power over the lives of citizens.
The study of law is usually conducted by lawyers, who are regulated in their professional activity by independent governing bodies such as bar associations or law societies. Lawyers must also undergo specific academic qualifications and training (e.g., a bachelor’s degree in legal studies), pass a qualifying examination and have a certain amount of practical experience to become qualified to practice law. They are required by law to maintain professional integrity, as well as to have a deep and thorough knowledge of the law.