Law is a system of rules that a government or community develops to deal with crimes, business agreements, and social relationships. It can also be used to refer to the people who work in this system, such as lawyers and judges.
Historically, laws have been made by religious leaders and other authority figures. Some of these laws are explicit and are known as canon law. Others are implicit and are based on a philosophy of life that is reflected in the beliefs and practices of the people who follow them. Some examples include Jewish halakha and Islamic Sharia. These laws can be used in both civil and common law legal systems, although they are generally not considered to be binding on non-religious citizens.
In the modern world, many governments have a mixture of civil and common law. This means that while legislative statutes and regulations are binding, judges in “common law” systems often rely on precedent, or stare decisis, in which past decisions are held to be legally valid and binding on future cases. This can lead to inconsistencies and uncertainty in the law.
Nevertheless, the judicial community still embraces the ideal of objectiveness. As Holmes noted, “Each new case brings a new situation, and with it a fresh estimate of the probabilities of success or failure of a given strategy. This is the building block of law; the process never stops.”
The study of law includes several core subjects, though these subjects intertwine and overlap. They include criminal procedure, which governs how courts handle trials and appeals; constitutional law, which concerns the structure of a nation’s government and its powers; and the law of evidence, which deals with what materials are admissible in court cases. Labour law involves the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union; property law covers ownership and control of assets; and commercial law covers complex contract and corporate structures such as partnerships and joint ventures.
The scope of law is wide and extends into every aspect of people’s lives. For example, a national government may use the law to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights and protect minorities against majorities. However, it may also use the law to oppress political opponents and to impose its views on society (see authoritarian state). People can be subjected to the law by the military, a police force or other governmental agencies. They can also be subjected to the law through private institutions such as censorship or by criminal or civil penalties. The social effects of these restrictions can be considerable, a point that Max Weber and other social critics have explored. Finally, the law may serve as an instrument of foreign policy and empire. This is the role that was traditionally undertaken by European powers. However, these powers have been less successful in imposing the rule of law abroad than was hoped for by Max Weber and other critics of the modern neo-imperial state.