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What is Law?

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Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has long been a subject of debate. The term is a broad category that encompasses both formal laws, such as statutes and court rulings, and informal codes of conduct or guidelines such as moral or behavioral principles. The concept of law also includes the principles that govern a country’s political structure, including constitutional law and international law.

Law can also refer to the practice of law and the legal profession, including lawyers, judges, and other members of the judiciary. The study of the systems of law and how they work is called legal studies, or sometimes just “law”.

A central theme in modern debates about the nature and extent of state power is the notion of ‘the rule of law’. This entails an expectation that the government and other actors within society will be held accountable to certain standards of conduct, openness and transparency, and accessible justice. The idea of the rule of law has roots in ancient philosophy, but its contemporary expression and development have been influenced by a range of political thinkers, from Max Weber to John Locke and Montesquieu.

The law can be a complex and difficult subject, with an enormous amount of information to be learned in order to understand it. In the simplest sense, a law is a binding instruction that is designed to prevent disorder, promote public safety and well-being, and ensure fairness. It is enforced by a centralized government with the power to punish people who break these instructions.

Different countries have different laws, based on either custom or a written constitution. Some use a system of common law, where laws are decided by judges in individual cases, and where decisions are recorded in books of case law. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law system, where the laws are in a book of codes that spell out in detail how judges must decide cases.

In most countries, the practice of law is regulated by a professional body, such as a bar association or law society. Lawyers must have a legal education and qualification, and are usually required to be licensed to practise by a governing body before they can represent clients in courts or other forums. Some lawyers are given special titles of respect, such as Esquire to indicate a degree of professionalism, or Doctor of Laws, which is an honorary title awarded to academics and other distinguished persons. Others have a separate professional identity, with distinct qualifications and career paths, such as paralegals or assistants to lawyers. These examples have been programmatically selected from a number of online sources. They may contain sensitive material or reflect opinions that are not necessarily those of the publisher. Please read our terms of use for further information. Copyright 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Reproduction of all material on this site is prohibited without prior permission from the publisher.

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