Law is a system of rules that social or governmental institutions use to regulate people’s activities. In the context of a nation, it can serve a range of purposes – to maintain peace and stability, protect individuals from oppressive majorities, allow for social change while preserving human rights, promote justice and provide equality before the law. It can be created by legislatures – groups of politicians in democracies, such as the Houses of Parliament in England, Congress in America, the Bundestag in Germany or the Duma in Russia – through laws passed by them; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or established through judges’ decisions known as case law or common law.
The most important types of law include criminal, administrative and constitutional. Criminal law provides a mechanism for the government to punish people who break certain rules. It can also regulate a society’s punishments, for example, through the death penalty or imprisonment. Administrative law consists of the processes and procedures used by the government to create, interpret and enforce laws. It can be the foundation for many other areas of law, such as contract law; labour and employment law; real estate law and intellectual property law.
A country’s constitution sets out the fundamental principles that all laws should be based upon. This can include concepts such as the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The judiciary is the branch of government that tries cases, determines people’s guilt or innocence and carries out the other functions of law enforcement.
In most countries with civil law systems, courts decide disputes between people and private companies by applying laws made by the legislative branch of government. In countries that have a mixed legal system, the courts often use common law combined with religious or customary law.
A lawyer is a person trained to study and argue the laws of a jurisdiction. In the United States, a lawyer can be either a transactional attorney who writes contracts or a litigator who appears in court. In the United Kingdom, these professionals are called solicitors or barristers. Lawyers must meet minimum requirements set out in the law of a jurisdiction, usually including a bachelor’s degree, successful completion of a professional legal exam and being sworn in as a member of a bar association or other governing body.
Laws are enforced by the state, typically through a judiciary that includes courts, police and prisons. The people in a democracy elect a group of politicians to represent them, known as a legislature, which produces laws. In democracies, the people can also make laws themselves by petitioning legislators to draft legislation, or through a process called popular sovereignty. Private individuals can also create their own legally binding laws through arbitration agreements, which provide alternative ways to solve disputes than standard legal proceedings. In the business world, competition law is one way that governments try to prevent businesses from using their financial power to distort market prices at the expense of consumers.