Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a complex subject that covers all aspects of human activity, making it an object of study in numerous academic disciplines including history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.
The precise nature of laws varies from place to place, and the authority to make them (and enforce them) rests in the hands of those with political power. As a result, different nations have their own distinct legal landscapes. However, the four principal functions of laws are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Some systems of law are more effective than others in serving these purposes. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and political opponents. A stable democratic government, on the other hand, can foster economic change and protect the rights of individuals.
Although laws are generally created by legislatures and enacted through the legislative process, courts have an important role to play in law as well. The doctrine of precedent – or stare decisis – requires that the decision of a lower court must be followed by a higher one that has the ability to review the case, unless there are significant differences in facts or issues involved.
Laws can cover a variety of topics, including the workplace, family and consumer protection. For example, contract law deals with agreements to exchange goods or services and the rights and duties that arise from these transactions; tort law seeks compensation for damages caused by negligent actions; and property law sets out the rights of owners and their responsibilities toward tangible objects such as land or cars.
Legal issues often involve moral values, and the laws of some countries are based on religious scriptures or principles of fairness. Moreover, many laws are derived from societal needs and desires. For example, public safety is a fundamental reason why some countries have zoning regulations; and the need to balance business opportunities with environmental protection is a major motivation behind laws on pollution.
There are a number of career options for people interested in the law, including becoming a judge or lawyer. Other areas of the law include ad hoc review and arbitration; public interest law; public service; international law; criminal justice; and constitutional and administrative law. Other subjects related to the law include censorship; crime and punishment; and war.