Law is a system of rules that governments and social institutions create to regulate the actions of their members. It serves a number of functions in society, including keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, promoting social justice and providing for orderly social change.
Legal systems vary widely among nations and regions, with different purposes for each. The most common are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights.
In some countries, the word law is used to refer to all the laws passed by a government, whilst in other countries it may be applied more narrowly to laws that deal with specific issues such as criminal law or family law.
A law is a legally binding document that is enforced by courts or other authorities, often through fines and prison sentences. It is typically named after the legislative body that has passed it, such as a statute or an Act of Congress.
The term ‘law’ is also sometimes used to refer to the social structure and practices that form the basis of a legal system, such as a court or a bar association. These organisations can be independent or they might be regulated by a state.
Law is a complex discipline and has many distinct features that make it different from other sciences and disciplines. It is not only normative, but it is also prescriptive and it has no empirical or causal character.
It is a specialised area of study that can encompass a wide range of topics, including law history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It also raises a range of important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice.
Legal terms and concepts are defined in encyclopedia entries and charts that provide an overview of the key issues and debates in this field. Our authoritative coverage includes concise definitions of the most commonly used terms across all aspects of this broad discipline, as well as specialist, in-depth encyclopedia entries on such diverse areas as commercial law, constitutional law, criminal law and international law.
The term ‘law’ is also sometimes used to refer to the legal practice of lawyers, which is a profession that requires special qualifications and is subject to legal regulations. It is a highly professional industry that is overseen by government agencies or by independent regulating bodies such as bar associations and law societies.
A lawyer’s role is to represent the interests of a client, which could be an individual or a company. This involves the preparation of a case, taking of evidence and the presentation of a defence or an appeal in a court of law.
There are a number of ways to bring a legal claim, and it is usually necessary for the plaintiff (the person bringing the claim) to have sufficient funds available to pay the cost of the claim. This can be a large sum or a small amount.