Law is a framework that governs human society and relationships between people, regulating the rights and duties of citizens. It shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways. It has four principal purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Various governments serve these functions differently. For example, authoritarian governments may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but may oppress minorities or resist social change. In contrast, liberal democracies may promote the liberty of individuals and protect the environment. Laws are usually established by a state, but they can also be created or modified by private entities such as companies, communities and churches.
A common misconception about law is that it deals only with criminal and civil justice, but it actually encompasses a wide range of activities. For instance, administrative law is about the regulations that control businesses; constitutional law is about how a nation’s constitution is written; and family law is about marriage and divorce. The law is a major source of scholarly inquiry and a focus of research on legal philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. It raises a number of complex issues about the nature of society and the distribution of goods and privileges.
Most legal systems are based on an ancient tradition that has been developed over the centuries. They have been influenced by religion and adapted to different cultural contexts. Generally, they are organized into either civil or common law systems. Civil law, based on the categories and rules of Roman law, is found in about 60% of the world’s nations. Common law, derived from judge-made precedent, is found in the other 40% of the world’s nations. Religious laws, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, remain influential in some societies and are used as primary sources of law alongside secular legal systems.
In modern society, the most important role of law is in establishing and protecting individual rights. Governments are expected to respect these rights and to enforce them through the courts and police. Those who violate these rights are punished. However, even in a well-ordered society, people disagree and fight over property and other matters. The law is a way to settle these conflicts peacefully and ensure that everyone has the same rights.
In some countries, judges decide what the law is by studying cases and interpreting past decisions. In other countries, legislative bodies make the laws and publish them in books called statutes. Despite these differences, all legal systems are governed by a basic principle: “Each person is equal before the law”. In some places, people have an extra right to a lawyer when they are accused of breaking the law. In some countries, this right is a guarantee in the constitution. Other countries have specific guarantees for minorities and women. Some countries have laws against hate speech and terrorism. In other countries, these laws are not always enforced. In some countries, it is illegal to publish or buy pornography.