Law is an enormously important subject, which influences all aspects of human life and raises significant questions about justice, fairness and equality. It forms the basis for a wide range of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy and economic analysis, and it touches upon many other important issues that are at the core of our morality. Nevertheless, the concept of law cannot be fully understood without reference to its human context and the way that humans think about it.
In general, a nation’s laws exist to serve certain fundamental purposes: to keep the peace, to maintain the status quo, to preserve the rights of individuals and minorities against majorities, to promote social justice and to provide for orderly social change. Different countries have developed various systems of law to achieve these aims, and some nations have more than one system in place.
A country’s law may be a combination of constitutional law, administrative law and common law, and it can also incorporate a variety of international conventions and treaties. The constitution outlines the fundamental principles of a state or nation, while administrative law governs the day-to-day running of government. Common law lays down broad principles to guide judges in deciding cases, and it is subject to revision on the basis of new case-law or social changes.
Other areas of law include labour law (which deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker and trade union) and property law (which defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects like houses or cars, and intangible items such as bank accounts or shares of stock). Criminal law imposes punishment for conduct that is considered damaging to social stability, while civil law settles disputes over money and possessions.
The emergence of law as a formal discipline can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the writings of Aristotle. By the time of the Roman Empire, law had become highly sophisticated, and it underwent codification under Theodosius. The modern legal profession is overseen by governments and independent regulating bodies, such as bar associations or law societies. Lawyers are granted a distinct professional identity by following specified procedures, passing a qualifying examination, undergoing an academic course of study and being admitted to practice.
The law may be based on religious precepts, for example the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, and Christian canon law. It can also be based on scientific knowledge, such as the laws of physics, biology and mathematics. Finally, the law can be based on an idea of natural justice, which is grounded in concepts of fairness and proportionality. These ideas can be further elaborated by jurisprudence and legal reasoning, and by the experience of past cases.