Law is a special kind of system of rules that a government or other controlling authority creates and enforces to control behavior. Its precise definition is a longstanding subject of debate. Some scholars argue that it is a moral discipline, while others see it as more of an art or science. Its study is particularly important in a society like our own, where many people have legal rights and responsibilities that must be protected and where disputes over those rights often result in lawsuits.
The term “law” is also used to refer to the legal profession itself. There are many different kinds of lawyers, ranging from those who specialize in criminal or civil law to those who specialize in tax law or estate planning. The specialized fields are all related to the law, but each has its own special requirements and methods for studying it.
A special feature of law is its normative character, that is, it tells people what they ought to do or not do, how they should treat others and themselves. This is in contrast to the descriptive character of laws in other sciences, such as physics (a law of gravity) or social sciences, such as economics (the law of supply and demand). The uniqueness of this normative dimension of law can make it a difficult subject to study from a scientific perspective.
While there is no definitive way to prove that a certain set of rules constitutes law, some basic criteria are generally agreed upon. These include that the rules must be public, clear and accessible, stable, and prospective. They must also be enforceable by the state and communicated to individuals before they have an effect on their conduct. These characteristics distinguish the law from other social institutions and are essential to the notion of the rule of law, which is a hallmark of modern democracy.
Law can be applied to a wide variety of situations and is a very versatile tool. It can be used to settle disputes between individuals or between nations. Tort law, for example, provides compensation when someone’s property is damaged or their reputation harmed, whereas crimes such as murder are regulated by criminal law. Some laws are applied to specific groups of people, such as minorities or political opponents, while others apply to all citizens (e.g., civil rights laws).
Some legal systems, such as that of the United States, rely on a common law system where judges decide cases. Other countries, such as Japan, use a civil code with explicit rules that judges must follow. Still other systems are based on prescriptive rules, such as that of France. Regardless of the system, all legal systems serve some purpose: they can keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, and protect against oppressive majorities or social change. Some serve these purposes more effectively than others, however. An authoritarian regime, for instance, may keep the peace but can oppress minorities and suppress the democratic process.