Law is a system of rules enacted and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate the behavior of individuals or groups. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Law can be made either by legislative process, resulting in statutes, or through judicial decisions that create legal precedent and are binding upon later judges. Private individuals can also make legally binding contracts. Legal research is the study of these laws and can be referred to as jurisprudence.
The main areas of law include criminal, civil and property. Each area has several sub-topics, which often overlap or intersect. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered to be harmful to social order and can result in punishment by the state. Civil law deals with disputes between citizens or businesses and can lead to lawsuits. Property law encompasses ownership of land, real estate and personal possessions such as cars and computers. It can be further broken down into three categories, namely, real property, personal property and intellectual property.
Other law topics include torts, contracts and family law. Torts are damages awarded to a plaintiff for an injury caused by another party’s actions, and contract law concerns the formation of legally binding agreements between parties. Family law concerns issues related to marriage, divorce and child custody. An additional topic is administrative law, which covers the rules that courts must follow as they hear cases and issue rulings.
An individual who violates the law may be subject to penalties, including fines or imprisonment. The laws vary by country and are enforced by a variety of agencies, such as police departments, the military, intelligence services and federal agencies such as the Justice Department.
The study of law is an important source for scholarly inquiry in history, philosophy, political science, economics and sociology. Some of the most controversial legal questions concern the limits of logical reasoning, which can be used to justify almost any action. Laws are largely based on the practices of the past, and thus must be understood in their historical context. Thus, laws are less dependable than rules developed by purely logical reasoning.
The term law can also refer to a set of rules created or imposed by a particular society, such as its constitution, which defines the rights and responsibilities of its members. In some countries, such as the United States, the law is derived from a common law system that acknowledges the principle of stare decisis, or “law of precedent,” which means that past court decisions are bound to future courts. In contrast, some countries have a civil law system that relies on detailed statutes.