The law is the set of socially accepted rules enacted by governments and recognized by courts that regulate human interactions and establish standards of behaviour. It is an important societal institution in a democracy that serves many purposes. The most prominent include establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The study of laws and legal systems is called jurisprudence.
Laws can be created in many ways, including legislation and precedent. Legislation is the formal procedure by which a parliament or other national body creates and codifies laws, with an emphasis on clear expression and limiting discretion to prevent abuse. Precedent is a rule or practice established by court decisions, with an emphasis on consistency. Both forms of law are enforceable by the courts, which are usually independent of the executive and legislative branches of government.
In some legal systems, decisions of the highest court bind lower courts through the doctrine of stare decisis. In others, decisions of the highest court merely provide guidance to lower courts. A third approach is to rely on a combination of statutes and case law. The latter is a system where decisions of higher courts become binding precedent on lower courts, but the judiciary retains discretion to respond to new situations by way of interpretation and creative jurisprudence.
The precise definition of the term ‘law’ is a matter of longstanding debate, with some seeing it as a science and others viewing it as an art or a branch of philosophy. It has been defined as the “rules of conduct in a society”, the “order of things” or the “standards of behaviour”.
Whether a set of laws should or should not comprise precepts of such-and-such import is also a matter for choice. It is important that law should not contain rules which are impractical or impossible to enforce: a court must be able to judge whether a given action is or is not a breach of the law. This is a difficult task, because it requires a judgement which must be based on the shape of the physical world and the limitations inherent in it.
There are a wide range of careers which involve the study and application of law, including the advising of clients about legal matters, representing them in court, giving advice to businesses and securing justice. Lawyers are often addressed as Esquire to signify their status and the profession has been described as an art of a sort. Those who wish to understand the workings of law can undertake an LLB or JD degree, while those who wish to practice it can do so as barristers, solicitors, chartered legal executives or judges. A number of books have been written on the subject, and there is much lively discussion of contemporary issues. Some articles are written for a general audience, while others have more technical language and may take a position on controversial changes to the law. For further reading on the law, see: