Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of ongoing debate. Generally speaking, the laws of a state should be clear and publicized and provide access to justice for citizens.
The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people. In the context of a nation, it can serve to keep peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities from majorities and allow for peaceful and orderly social change. In this context, some legal systems serve these purposes better than others.
The field of Law spreads far beyond these three core subjects into virtually every area of human activity. It may be classified broadly into civil, criminal and common law. Civil law, found on all continents, is based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law with some influence from canon law, often supplemented or modified by local custom and culture. Its main emphasis is on cooperation between humans.
Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with offenses against a nation, its people or individual citizens. It seeks to ensure that people, especially members of the government and private citizens, do not commit crimes. It also seeks to punish those who commit crimes.
Common law, on the other hand, is based on the decisions of judges in particular cases and the principle of stare decisis (Latin for ‘to stand by the decision’), which means that past judgments on similar or identical facts will guide future courts. In general, this results in the decisions of lower courts binding upon higher courts in similar cases.
Property law, which encompasses both real and personal property, covers mortgages, lease agreements, titles and other documents pertaining to land ownership. It also covers the right in rem and the less well known rights in personam, which cover movable objects such as computers and cars. Intellectual property law and company law deal with the use of patents, trademarks and copyrights, as do issues concerning taxation, insurance and banking.
Other areas of the Law include family law, which governs marriage and divorce, the formation of families and the rights and obligations of parents and children. Tort law provides compensation when someone or their property is harmed, whether in an automobile accident or by defamation of character. The Law can also be regarded as a system of moral values, a set of principles that people agree to live by. These principles are outlined in a constitution, which is either written or tacit. These principles are embodied in a philosophy of law, which is both a discipline and an art. The philosopher John Locke wrote that a good law is one which does not mandate behaviours that are unattainable and does not force people to do things they cannot achieve. The legal profession includes academics who study and teach the Law, as well as lawyers who practice it in the courts of a country or region.