What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules governing the relationships and conduct of people and organizations. It includes a broad range of subjects from criminal and employment laws to international and family law. It can also refer to the body of laws enacted by a government, or to a specific area of law such as competition or environmental protection. Law also encompasses the judicial process and the responsibilities of judges, lawyers, and other legal personnel. Laws can also refer to a set of moral principles sanctioned by religion or the conscience of a person.

Legal systems vary across the world, but most have a centrally governed judicial branch. The law may be codified as a written document called a statute or it may be inferred from a body of jurisprudence that has evolved over time and from case precedents. In legal systems that follow common law, judicial precedent stands in contrast to, and is on equal footing with, legislation.

Regardless of their source, all laws attempt to achieve four goals: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The emergence of the legal profession in the Middle Ages reflected the importance of these goals in society and the need for impartial dispute resolution. A legal practitioner is an advocate that assists people in resolving disagreements through court proceedings. Lawyers can hold many titles including Esquire, Barrister and Doctor of Law, with the latter indicating that a person has earned a Ph.D in law.

As the responsibilities of a governing body increase, it is important to maintain checks and balances on power. In the United States, the Constitution provides for separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, to ensure that no one individual can become so powerful that he or she is above the law.

While a country’s laws can be changed by the legislative or executive branches, it is more difficult to change the law that has been established in the courts. This is the reason why judges are careful to evaluate all sources of law when deciding cases and to make a ruling that is consistent with prior decisions. In jurisdictions that do not have a strong respect for judicial precedent, fine points of law must be determined anew each time a dispute arises, which makes consistency and prediction more difficult and leads to lengthy legal proceedings that consume far greater resources than necessary.