Law is a system of rules that governs the behavior of individuals, families and organizations. It is an area of study that encompasses a broad range of topics and issues – including criminal, civil and commercial laws – which are applied in different countries around the world. Law is a source of scholarly inquiry in the fields of legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It raises important questions about justice, equality and fairness.
Law shapes politics, economies, histories and societies in many ways. Its precise definition is a subject of ongoing debate, but it can generally be defined as a set of normative statements about what people ought to do and not do. These are enforced by social or governmental institutions, and they are distinct from descriptive or causal statements (such as the law of gravity).
The field is generally divided into civil and criminal law. The former deals with conduct that is judged to be harmful to society, and is typically punished by the state. The latter addresses disputes between individuals or organisations, and can be settled by courts or arbitrators. Some jurisdictions use a mix of civil and criminal law, with different procedures for each. For example, some countries have a separate legal profession for each. Others have a single legal system that covers both civil and criminal matters.
In modern societies, law is enacted by legislatures or other central bodies, and interpreted by the courts. It is an essential element of the rule of law, which aims to ensure that government, businesses and individuals are held to public standards of behaviour and transparency. This requires the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of government officials and transparency in business transactions. It also requires citizens to respect and comply with legal norms, and accept decisions by judicial bodies on their rights and duties.
One of the major challenges to ensuring the rule of law is the way in which the concept of law is understood. The scholarly literature on the topic is enormous, and it has been characterised by debates from a variety of perspectives. These include a classical approach to the topic, which was popularised by the Roman philosopher Cicero. More recently, there has been an interest in understanding how non-modern cultures understand the law. For instance, the Inuit culture of the Arctic has a concept of law that does not divide reality into natural and human/social categories. This has led some to suggest that we could learn from the Inuit’s perspective on what constitutes law. However, it is not clear whether such a perspective would be applicable to the entire modern world.