Law is the set of rules a government or community develops in order to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements and social relationships. It can also refer to the legal system itself, which is a combination of judges and lawyers who deal with cases in courts. The precise definition of law is a matter of ongoing debate, but it usually involves a set of principles that govern the behaviour of a society or group, and the sanctions that may be applied if these principles are broken.
Law can be regarded as an area of study in its own right, as well as a tool for the analysis of politics, economics and history. It can be divided into civil law and criminal law, though many areas of law overlap. Civil law encompasses areas such as property law, contract law and torts (cases where someone’s property is damaged, for example in a car accident or by defamation).
The main purpose of law is to maintain public peace and the status quo, protect individual rights against majorities and promote social justice. Some nations have more effective laws than others. For instance, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and enforce the status quo but it is likely to oppress minorities and political opponents. Conversely, a European colonial regime may promote social change whilst protecting the rights of indigenous populations and preserving its own culture.
A legal regime is generally recognised as valid only if it is justified by other legally valid norms. These may be referred to as “legal justification”. In most jurisdictions, such justification is a matter of law-making and the courts are the final arbiters of validity. Justification is a matter of normativity and not of objectivity, since no empirical evidence can be provided on which to base a judgement as to whether a legal rule is valid or not. The rules which are deemed to be legally valid are known as legal “norms”.
Some legal systems are codified and centrally controlled, while others have more splintered facets of law. Traditionally there are two major legal traditions: civil law, which is based on legislative codes, and common law, which is judge-made. Both systems coexist in many countries today, especially those that were once colonies of continental European nations, where civil law was imposed alongside indigenous or religious tradition. Modern civil law also reflects the influence of Islamic Sharia law, and some religions have their own laws for members to follow.