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The Definition of Law

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Law is a set of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, settle disputes and protect rights and liberties. Law may be made by legislative bodies resulting in statutes, decrees or regulations, by executive agencies enforcing administrative codes and by courts through decisions forming a body of law called precedent or case law. Laws also are created through private legal action resulting in contracts and other legally binding agreements. Laws can be codified by legislatures and enforced through the executive or judiciary, or largely uncodified and regulated by judges or other arbitrators based on equity, general principles and jurisprudence. Law is not identical in all jurisdictions but is highly variable and dependent upon cultural heritage, religious precepts and the social, economic and political makeup of a nation.

A basic definition of law is that it is a system of rules established to regulate a society or group of people to ensure that everyone adheres to the same standards. However, the definition of law is much wider than this simple explanation. There are four major functions of law: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting rights and liberties. The law must be clear and publicized, publicly enforced and independently adjudicated. It must be capable of adapting to social change and preserving minorities against majority pressures. In addition, it must promote justice and fairness as well as property, contract and procedural rights.

The study of law encompasses many subjects and areas of interest, though these are primarily divided into three categories for convenience: public, commercial and common law. Public law includes criminal and civil procedure and the laws of evidence that govern what can be presented in court for a case to be built. Commercial law is complex and consists of intellectual property, insurance, bills of exchange, contracts, insolvency and bankruptcy laws and sales law. It grew out of the medieval Lex Mercatoria and is now codified in some countries through statutes and other legal instruments.

Finally, common law focuses on the relationships between citizens and the rights they have in those relationships. This includes employment law, the laws of land ownership and possession (real estate) and personal property rights, such as ownership of cars, jewellery or computers (rights in rem). It also encompasses the legal structure of corporations and trusts, which stemmed from company and land law. Its foundation is the doctrine of stare decisis, in which a former judge’s decision binds subsequent cases. Unlike in civil law systems, the decisions of higher courts tend to be briefer and more specific, as they only form part of a body of law derived from previous cases. The development of the law also has been influenced by religion, for example in Jewish and Islamic Halakha and Sharia law and Christian canon and jurisprudence. It is a broad and richly diverse subject that has grown over the centuries. It is an essential aspect of human civilization.

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