Law is a system of rules that regulates and governs the behaviour of people in a society. It can be enforced by the state through courts and government agencies, or it can be private through agreements between individuals. Law shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways and can be a force for good or bad. Its precise definition has been debated over the centuries, but it is usually understood to mean a written or unwritten document that dictates the rights and obligations of individuals and groups.
The legal system varies widely around the world, depending on the needs of the societies in which it is practised. It may reflect ancient Greek philosophy or the utilitarian theories of John Austin and Jeremy Bentham, but it can also be based on religious precepts (e.g., Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia), or on further human elaboration, such as interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent. In common law systems, judges’ decisions are recognized as laws, and they bind lower courts through the doctrine of stare decisis.
Criminal laws punish convicted offenders, whereas civil laws deal with disputes between individuals. The law can be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or by the judiciary, through judicial decisions and case law. Private individuals can also create legally binding agreements, including arbitration, which is an alternative to standard court litigation.
Some nations have a colonial past, and their law may be partly imposed by European powers, or by more modern empires. Other countries have a more indigenous heritage, and their laws may be based on local traditions and customs. The globalization of the economy has increased the need for international legal cooperation, and the international community has created organizations to encourage this.
Competition law aims to prevent businesses from using their power over consumers to dominate markets or prices. Consumer protection laws cover everything from advertising restrictions to the fairness of contractual terms and clauses. Employment law deals with the rights of workers and employers. Criminal law encompasses offenses against the state, from traffic violations to terrorism.
Other areas of the law are family and immigration, which deal with the rights of couples and children to property and money, as well as their rights in separation proceedings or in cases of asylum. Tort law provides compensation for loss or injury, whether from accidents or defamation. Intellectual property law, corporate law and trusts are other fields of law. Discovery – The examination of the opposing sides’ evidence by lawyers, before trial. This evidence is recorded on a docket or log of court proceedings. Arraignment – The official proceeding in which a person accused of a crime is brought into court to be told of the charges against him or her and asked to enter a plea. en banc – A term for a court session with the entire membership of a higher court, rather than the usual quorum of three judges.