Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It also provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, political theory and sociology. It also serves as a mediator of relations between people, whether they are individuals, businesses or government agencies.
Law may be characterized as having a normative and prescriptive character, with rules that lay down how people ought to behave or what they may require from each other, and with the power to sanction those who fail to follow them. It is therefore different from empirical sciences like physics (as in the law of gravity) and social sciences such as economics, where facts about natural or human behaviour are observed.
There are several branches of law, which broadly divide into civil, criminal and administrative areas. Civil law covers all aspects of people’s interactions with each other, including contracts and business transactions. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property like land or buildings, as well as intangible property like bank accounts or shares of stock. Employment law regulates the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, whereas family law deals with divorces and other private disputes. Criminal law deals with conduct considered harmful to society, with the penalty for violating these laws being imprisonment or fines.
The law is made by a legislature or other central body, but it may be modified by judicial interpretation and by the customs and traditions of a society. It may be codified and consolidated into a code, as is the case with civil law jurisdictions, or it may exist in a common law system, where judges make law through precedent. Religious law may also serve as a basis for some law, as in the case of Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia.
Some law is international, regulating interstate commerce or establishing treaties between nations. Most law, however, is local or state law, governing a particular community. In the United States, federal statutes (which are arranged by subject in the United States Code) often preempt state law, but in some fields, like antitrust and patent law, there is considerable overlap between federal and state legislation.
In addition to domestic law, there is a large body of international law, with over 500 multilateral treaties deposited with the United Nations. These treaties cover a wide range of subjects, from the protection of the environment to the settlement of international disputes. The Charter of the United Nations calls for the organization to assist in settling international disputes by peaceful means, and to promote the progressive development and codification of law. Its principles include supremacy of the law, equality before the law, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers and participation in decision-making. It also calls for respect for international human rights law and standards. This is often interpreted as requiring the rule of law, which is a foundation of modern democracy and the international order. It is an element of international stability and security, and a prerequisite for peace.