Law (a loanword from Old Norse lag), in politics and jurisprudence, is a set of rules or norms of conduct which mandate, proscribe or permit specified relationships among people and organizations, provide methods for ensuring the impartial treatment of such people, and provide punishments for those who do not follow the established rules of conduct.
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Law is the formal regime that orders human activities and relations through systematic application of the force of politically organized society.
Laws may require or proscribe given actions, as well as empower citizens to engage in certain activities, such as enter into contracts and draft wills. Laws may also simply mandate what procedures are to be followed in a given context; for example, the U.S. Constitution mandates how Congress, along with the President, may create laws. A more specific example might be the Securities and Exchange Act, which, along with the SEC, a regulatory body, mandates how public companies must go about making periodic disclosures to investors.
In most countries only professionals trained in the law can effectively understand and explain legal principles, draft relevant documents, and guide parties through legal disputes, whether with another private party (civil law) or with the government (often involving criminal law).
Most laws and legal systems—at least in the Western world—are quite similar in their essential themes, arising from similar values and similar social, economic, and political conditions, and they typically differ less in their substantive content than in their jargon and procedures. Communication between legal systems is the focus of legal translation and legal lexicography, which deals with the principles of producing a law dictionary.
One of the fundamental similarities across different legal systems is that, to be of general approval and observation, a law has to appear to be public, effective, and legitimate, in the sense that it has to be available to the knowledge of the citizen in common places or means, it needs to contain instruments to grant its application, and it has to be issued under given formal procedures from a recognized authority.
In the context of most legal systems, laws are enacted through the processes of constitutional charter, constitutional amendment, legislation, executive order, rulemaking, and adjudication. Within common law jurisdictions, rulings by judges are an important additional source of legal rules; within civil law jurisdictions, rulings do not constitute de jure for the future, but in practice, jurisprudence is often quite equivalent to common law precedent.
Law has an anthropological dimension. In order to have a culture of law, people must dwell in a society where a government exists whose authority is hard to evade and generally recognised as legitimate. People forego personal revenge or self-help and choose instead to take their grievances before the government and its agents, who arbitrate disputes and enforce penalties.
This behaviour is contrasted with the culture of honor, where respect for persons and groups stems from fear of the disproportionate revenge they may exact if their person, property, or prerogatives are not respected. Cultures of law must be maintained. They can be eroded by declining respect for the law, achieved either by weak government unable to wield its authority, or by burdensome restrictions that attempt to forbid behaviour prevalent in the culture or in some subculture of the society. When a culture of law declines, there is a possibility that an undesirable culture of honor will arise in its place.
A particular society or community adopts a specific set of laws to regulate the behavior of its own members, to order life in its political territory, to grant or acknowledge the rights and privileges of its citizens and other people who may come under the jurisdiction of its courts, and to resolve disputes.
There are several distinct laws and legal traditions, and each jurisdiction has its own set of laws and its own legal system. Individually codified laws are known as statutes, and the collective body of laws relating to one subject or emanating from one source are usually identified by specific reference. (E.g., Roman law, Common law, and Criminal law.)
Moreover, the several different levels of government each produce their own laws, though the extent to which law is centralized varies. Thus, at any one place there can be conflicting laws in force at the local, regional, state, national, or international levels. (See conflict of laws, Preemption of State and Local Laws.)
Areas of law, a sampling
This list is not comprehensive.
- Administrative law refers to the body of law which regulates bureaucratic managerial procedures and is administered by the executive branch of a government; rather than the judicial or legislative branches (if they are different in that particular jurisdiction). This body of law regulates international trade, manufacturing, pollution, taxation, and the like. This is sometimes seen as a subcategory of civil law and sometimes called public law as it deals with regulation and public institutions.
- Case law (precedental law) regulates, via precedents, how laws are to be understood. Case law, also called common law or judge-made law, is derived from the body of rulings made by a country's courts. In the United States, the primary source of case law relating to federal and constitutional questions is the Supreme Court of the United States. The states, each with its own final State Supreme Court, generate case law that is only binding precedent in that state. In countries that were once part of the British Empire the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the House of Lords are primary sources of case law, though not necessarily binding precedent, as each country has its own court of last resort.
- Civil law, not to be confused with the civil legal system, has several meanings:
- Secular law is the legal system of a non-theocratic government, such as that which developed in England, especially during the reign of Henry II
- Private law regulates relationships between persons and organizations including contracts and responsible behaviour such as through liability through negligence. This body of law enforces statutes or the common law by allowing a party, whose rights have been violated, to collect damages from a defendant. Where monetary damages are deemed insufficient, civil court may offer other remedies in equity; such as forbidding someone to do an act (eg; an injunction) or formally changing someone's legal status (eg; divorce). This body of law includes the law of torts in common law systems, or in civilian systems, the Law of Obligations.
- Commercial law, often considered to be part of civil law, covers business and commerce relations including sales and business entities.
- Common law is derived from Anglo-Saxon customary law, also referred to as judge-made law, as it developed over the course of many centuries in the English courts. Judges' decisions are heavily influenced, and sometimes actually bound, by precedents set by the judges in previous decisions on related matters.
- Criminal law (penal law) is the body of laws which regulate governmental sanctions (such as imprisonment and/or fines) as retaliation for crimes against the social order.
- International law governs the relations between states, or between citizens of different states, or international organizations. Its two primary sources are customary law and treaties.
- Procedural law are rules and regulations found in a legal system that regulate access to legal institutions such as the courts, including the filing of private lawsuits and regulating the treatment of defendants and convicts by the public criminal justice system. Within this field are laws regulating arrests and evidence, injunctions and pleadings. Procedural law defines the procedure by which law is to be enforced. See criminal procedure and civil procedure.
- Space law regulates events occurring outside Earth's atmosphere. This field is in its infancy.
Legal subject areas
Administrative law – Admiralty – Alternative dispute resolution – Appellate review – Brehon Laws – Civil procedure – Civil rights – Commercial law – Communications Law – Comparative law – Consuetudinary law – Contracts – Constitutional law – Copyright Law – Courts of England and Wales – Corporations law – Criminal law – Criminal procedure – Election law – Entertainment Law – Environmental law – Equity – Evidence – Family law – Fiduciary – Human rights – Immigration – Intellectual property – Jurisprudence – Law and economics – Agency – Law of Obligations – Labor law – Land use – List of items for which possession is restricted – Military law – Philosophy of law – Practice of law – Private law – Procedural law – Property law – Public Health law – Public Law – Religious law – Statutory law – Tax law – Technology law – Torts – Trusts and estates – Cyber law – Water law
Subjects auxiliary to law
Terms, case law, legislation and other resources
- Law topics overview
- List of jurists
- List of legal topics
- List of basic criminal justice topics
- List of international public law topics
- List of Supreme Court of Canada cases
- List of Judicial Committees of the Privy Council & House of Lords cases
- List of United States Supreme Court cases
- List of leading legal cases in copyright law
- Black's Law Dictionary
- Halsbury's Laws of England
- Corpus Juris Secundum
- American Law Reports
- Recueil Dalloz
- Cheyenne Way: Conflict & Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence, Karl N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1983, trade paperback, 374 pages, ISBN 0806118555
- The Bilingual LSP Dictionary. Principles and Practice for Legal language, Sandro Nielsen, Gunter Narr Verlag 1994.
- Other books by Karl N. Llewellyn
- Philosophy of law
- Law (principle)
- List of legal abbreviations
- Legal code
- Letter versus Spirit
- Natural Justice
- Natural law
- Religious law
- Witness intimidation
- Law, Legal Definitions & Reference
- Essentials of Law-Related Education. ERIC Digest.
- LII – Topical overviews, US Supreme Court decisions, US Code (Acts of Congress)
- WorldLII – The World Legal Information Institute
- LawMoose Legal Reference Library
- Legal Research Links
- Everybody's Legal Glossary – From Nolo