Law is the set of rules a society or government develops to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements, and social relationships. The word is also used to refer to the legal profession, a person who practices law, or legal actions.
Law has numerous branches that govern everything from contracts to space exploration. Generally speaking, law is a system of commandments imposed by those in authority over the people that it governs, which commands what is right and prohibits what is wrong. Among other things, laws must be permanent as to time, uniform with respect to all persons, and universally applicable in all places.
The most familiar branch of the law is criminal law, which covers activities that violate a country’s state or federal statutes, or that violate societal values. In addition to regulating the punishment of crimes, criminal law establishes standards for defending a defendant, including the right to counsel and to be presumed innocent.
Civil law, on the other hand, defines citizens’ rights and duties toward tangible property. This includes their real estate, such as houses and cars, as well as intangible property like bank accounts and shares of stock. Civil law is governed by laws made by the legislature (i.e., bills passed by Congress and either signed into law or allowed to become law over the president’s veto), by executive decrees, or by courts through court decisions.
Each nation’s laws reflect its own culture, history, and political landscape. An authoritarian nation may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but will often oppress minorities or opposition groups; on the other hand, democratic nations must balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few. The principal functions of law are to promote orderly social change and provide access to justice.
Although laws can be written down by a legislative body, resulting in statutes, they are more commonly created by judges through case law. This process, known as stare decisis, is based on institutionalized opinions and interpretations of previous cases that provide the precedent for future decisions. In fact, Blackstone argued that “Judges, in matters of common law, are the depositories of the law; they are the living oracles and, on their decision, depends the welfare and safety of all mankind.”