Law is a set of rules that are enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour and promote justice. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate and it has been variously described as both a science and an art. Laws govern a variety of aspects of people’s lives in their diverse range of social contexts, and raise complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice. It is therefore a source of scholarly inquiry across a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, including legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
A nation’s laws may be imposed by its government to achieve one or more of the following purposes: (1) keep the peace and maintain the status quo (2) ensure that society adheres to a set of values (3) resolve disputes or protect liberties and rights (4) facilitate orderly social change
These goals can be achieved through a wide range of legal systems. For example, an authoritarian regime will use its law to oppress minorities and suppress opposition; a democratic system will seek to maintain the peace and promote liberty through the ballot box; and a capitalist regime will use its laws to regulate commerce, prevent crime and provide public services.
The scope of law encompasses a huge number of subjects, and many of them intertwine or overlap with each other. Core subjects include contract law (which covers agreements to exchange goods or services), property law (which defines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible possessions, such as land or buildings) and criminal law, which deals with conduct that violates the public interest.
In addition to these subjects, there are numerous sub-fields of law. Labour law, for example, examines the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, and includes matters such as collective bargaining regulation and the right to strike. Family law includes such subjects as marriage, divorce proceedings and the rights of children. Intellectual property law (which covers patents, trademarks and copyrights) concerns the ownership of ideas. Administrative law covers the way that governments manage their functions, and involves such matters as taxation, health and safety, and utilities (such as water and energy).
Laws may be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes, or by an executive body through decrees and regulations. Alternatively, they may be established through the courts through precedent (known as common law jurisdictions). The former type of law is often codified into small books called codes and the latter is typically written out in judicial decisions. Regardless of the method of creation, all laws are subject to revision or disapplication as scientific research produces new knowledge and new social contexts emerge. In particular, a scientific law (such as the strength of gravity between two objects) can be changed by further scientific investigation or by the circumstances in which the law was applied. This contrasts with non-scientific laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which are more likely to be protected by constitutional safeguards and be resistant to revision or disapplication.