Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law has many purposes, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Some legal systems are better at serving these purposes than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it might also oppress minorities or its own political opponents. Conversely, a constitutional democracy may promote individual liberty and provide orderly change while still keeping the peace.
The concept of law is complex, with a wide range of definitions and interpretations. Generally, however, law is the body of rules that governs relationships among people, societies and governments. It is enacted by legislatures, courts and other institutions, and enforced through the mechanisms of criminal justice and civil law.
Legal scholars and philosophers have debated the nature of law and its role in society. Some think that laws are inherently arbitrary, while others argue that law is a system of ethical values derived from experience and tradition. Most agree, though, that legal rules are designed to control behavior and prevent harm.
In addition to regulating social behavior, law is also used to establish property rights and impose order in the economic and political life of a nation. In the United States, for example, there are laws governing civil, family, property, and criminal matters. A civil court handles disputes between individuals, and a criminal court prosecutes cases against offenders. There are also a number of administrative and regulatory agencies that are responsible for enforcing certain kinds of laws.
The practice of law encompasses a vast array of fields and subfields, such as criminal, family, property, administrative, international, and tort law. Civil law focuses on lawsuits between private parties, such as divorces, property disputes, and lawsuits over wrongful death or defamation. Criminal law addresses offenses against the state or government, such as murder or terrorism. In addition, there are areas of law governing specific kinds of goods or activities, such as air, commercial, and maritime laws.
A legal term often used is precedent, which refers to a prior court case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before the court. Courts are obligated to follow precedent unless it is overturned on appeal. Another term is quorum, which refers to the minimum number of judges required to participate in a trial or hearing. In the United States, courts of appeals typically sit in panels of three judges. If a court decides to hear a case with its entire membership, it is said to be sitting en banc.