Law is a social institution that shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. It governs people’s behaviour, establishes property rights and defines the limits of government power. In addition, it provides the means to resolve disputes and settle conflicts between individuals or between people and the state. It also determines the extent to which people are equal before the law and the degree of freedom they can enjoy in the context of a particular society.
Legal systems vary from nation to nation, as do the ways in which law is interpreted and enforced. Laws can be imposed by military or civil power. They can be enacted by the legislature or created through the judiciary, and their scope can range from personal rights to public order. Whether or not laws are equitable and fair, as well as how they can be amended or abolished, are central issues in the study of law.
An individual’s actions may be governed by a variety of different laws, including a code of conduct, a constitution, a judicial system and the principles of legal interpretation. Some of these laws are codified and centralized in the form of statutes, whereas others are developed through the courts by interpreting previous rulings. Some of these laws are based on religious doctrine, for example the Shari’ah.
The nature of the law is a subject of philosophic inquiry, with theories about its existence and purpose being widely debated. These theories are influenced by the philosophy of the time and place in which they were created. Some philosophers argue that law is objective, while others assert that it is a product of human choice and a reflection of a society’s culture.
Regardless of their philosophical roots, all forms of law have certain fundamental characteristics. First, they are normative: they comprise precepts that are considered right or wrong and have the force of authority. This makes them unlike most empirical sciences, which provide means for checking the accuracy of authoritative statements.
For instance, it is possible to challenge a law that relates to something inherently subjective, such as what is a good or bad idea. Moreover, laws that are based on natural processes can be proven to be true or false by experimentation.
Another area of controversy is the nature and role of law in a democracy. This is especially pertinent in the wake of the rise of modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over everyday life, which poses special problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have envisaged. Other controversial areas in the study of law include legal training, judicial independence and the relationship between law and the political system. See legal profession, legal education and political philosophy for more on these topics. See censorship; crime and punishment; and war, law of for discussion of the broader social restrictions that are the basis for some legal systems. For more on the role of the law in social change, see social justice and law.