What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules and regulations created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to control human behavior and ensure fair treatment for all people. It also includes the judicial system that administers legal proceedings and punishes wrongdoers. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, and is a source of scholarly inquiry in legal philosophy, history, theory and sociology. It is also the foundation of the careers of lawyers and judges. There are a wide range of laws, including civil law, criminal law and constitutional law.

A law may include a set of guidelines for what is acceptable or unacceptable in the community, such as a code of morality or a prohibition on racial discrimination. Alternatively, a law may regulate a specific activity such as driving or marriage. Laws are often influenced by cultural traditions and religious beliefs, but may also be created and enforced independently of these influences.

The nature of a law depends on the societal context and the political structure that governs it. For example, a government that imposes peace on a region by means of an authoritarian regime may be able to keep the law in place and maintain stability, but it might not be able to provide for equitable treatment for minorities or opposition groups.

Laws may be written or unwritten, but must be clear and accessible to all citizens. They must contain explicit definitions of terms, a clear statement of rights and duties and a description of remedies, and they should not be so long or complex that the judiciary cannot interpret and amend them as needed for new social situations. The rules should be enforceable and consistent, and the judiciary must be allowed to make adjustments without interference from other branches of the government.

An effective rule of law requires that the judiciary be independent from political pressures, and there must be sufficient safeguards to prevent corruption of judicial decisions or the granting of favors for monetary considerations. Judicial independence can be facilitated by ensuring that the judiciary is populated with competent and impartial persons who have received thorough legal training. The rule of law can also be enhanced by promoting good governance through a free press, and by ensuring that the governing body is accountable to the public.

The law can serve a variety of purposes in a society, such as keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities from majorities, and facilitating social change. For more details on these and other aspects of law, see the articles on constitution; justice (theory of); crime and punishment; and military law. For a discussion of the relationship between law and power, see law, philosophy of; political system; and social justice. Also see law, religion of for an examination of Shari’ah law and Jewish and Talmudic law. See also censorship; and jurisprudence.

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