Law is the system of rules that governs human interactions in a society. Its existence is necessary for order and safety. There are many different branches of law, such as contract law, property law and criminal law. Law also includes regulations concerning the provision of public services and utilities, such as water, electricity and gas. In addition to these fields of law, there is constitutional law and international law. The term law can also refer to the legal profession, legal education or a specific branch of the judiciary.
The main functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities and provide for social change in an orderly fashion. The degree to which a country’s government fulfils these roles differs from nation to nation. For example, authoritarian governments may maintain the peace and the status quo but they often oppress minorities or prevent social reform (see regime; state).
In philosophy, law is usually considered to be a system of commandments backed by the threat of sanctions that reflect a sovereign’s ideas about what people should do. This utilitarian theory of law emerged in the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, but was later influenced by the concept of natural laws. Natural lawyers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law should reflect moral and unchangeable laws of nature.
The definition of law can be seen in the way in which a number of branches of the law are structured. For example, civil procedure deals with the rules that must be followed as a case is tried. Evidence law covers the types of materials that are admissible in court for a case to be built.
An important aspect of law is its role in a democracy, where it provides the means by which citizens can challenge existing political-legal authority. This is a recurring theme in history, as shown by revolutions and aspirations for greater “rights” for the citizenry (see constitution; democracy; governmental power; political freedom; rights).
There are a number of issues that are not covered adequately by law. For example, it is difficult to ensure that the law is interpreted in a neutral and objective manner by judges. This is a problem with many forms of law, and the development of scientific methods for testing theories of the law has helped to overcome some of these problems.
There are a number of other areas that are not covered well by the law, but which are important for a healthy society. These include religious freedom; sexual freedom; economic justice; and environmental protection. Articles about these and other topics are available by using the article links below. Also see constitutional law; legal ethics; and legal education for more information on these subjects. This article is part of the Knowledge of Law series. The Knowledge of Law series is edited by James M. Scurfield and produced by the American Association of Law Schools.