Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Government-enforced laws can be made by collective legislatures, resulting in statutes, by executive decrees and regulations, or by judges in common law jurisdictions based on precedent. Individuals can also create legally binding contracts and have a variety of rights encoded in their constitution or written or unwritten “rule book.”
A well-ordered society relies on the law to ensure that people treat each other fairly, pay taxes as they are owed, and do not break other established rules, such as the speed limit. Laws protect people’s property by determining who owns what and how to deal with property disputes. The law also provides a mechanism to resolve disagreements peacefully through litigation rather than by physical force, for example when two people claim ownership of the same piece of land.
The law defines a wide variety of rights and duties in the realms of civil, criminal, family and commercial affairs. Civil law (often referred to as domestic or private law) deals with lawsuits, contracts, property and personal injuries. It includes such areas as divorce, custody of children and property inheritance. Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with the punishment of people who break the social order by imposing fines or imprisonment.
Legal systems vary worldwide in how they establish and enforce their laws, from those based on civil law to those that are governed by religious or sharia law. Law influences society in a broad range of ways and is a rich source of scholarly inquiry and debate, especially in the fields of legal history, philosophy, ethics, economic analysis and sociology.
Some laws have a purely practical purpose, such as traffic or parking rules, while others are more philosophically important, such as the principle of equality under the law or the right to a fair trial. Laws are also a major part of the social structure in all countries and play a fundamental role in regulating relationships between individuals and between the state and its citizens.
The law is the foundation of a democratic society, and its principles are reflected in the constitutions of most countries. These constitutions set out fundamental principles of the law, including supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, participation in decision-making, and legal certainty and transparency. The rule of law also requires that people and the government follow the law, and that the law is impartial and independently adjudicated. This is commonly referred to as the separation of powers, and it is one of the most important pillars of democracy. It is also a fundamental component of a healthy economy and a just society. For example, the rule of law prevents governments from corrupting or stealing money from their citizens and ensures that the courts are independent from political influence. It is a key to a healthy market economy, where competition between businesses leads to innovation and lower prices for consumers.