Law is a body of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has been a matter of longstanding debate, but is commonly understood to include rules and penalties that are enforceable by courts and enforced through state power. Government-enforced laws may be made by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch, through decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent, as in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and adopt alternative means of resolving disputes to standard court litigation, such as arbitration agreements.
Laws may be designed for a variety of purposes, including maintaining order, resolving conflicts, and preserving rights and liberties. They can be shaped by a wide range of factors, from the structure of a country’s government to its constitution, from its historical legacy to its economy. The most fundamental purpose of laws is to keep the peace and uphold the status quo, but they can also protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice, and allow for peaceful political change.
A central aspect of the study of law is understanding how laws are created, enacted, and enforced. This includes examining how different systems of law were created throughout history, and the ways in which they vary between countries and regions. For example, the framers of the United States Constitution sought to address the potential for corruption that arises when a single individual can wield too much power, by dividing legislative, executive, and judicial powers among themselves and placing limits on how the judiciary can review the actions of other branches of the government.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the growth of international trade prompted many countries to develop a uniform law for commercial transactions by codifying their local laws into civil codes. This trend is continuing today, with increasing signs that civil law and common law are converging.
Other legal fields include family law, which covers marriage and divorce proceedings, the custody of children, and property rights in the event of separation; environmental law, which addresses pollution and the conservation of natural resources; and space law, which deals with human activities in Earth orbit and outer space. Biolaw is a growing field that addresses the intersection of law and the biosciences.
Despite the apparent complexity of law, it is essential to recognise that it is entirely contingent upon human mental processes. This is because the defining characteristic of law is its normative nature, in which it prescribes how people should act or not act, and what they should or must not require from each other. This distinguishes it from empirical science (as in the laws of gravity) or even social science (as in the law of supply and demand). This makes the study of law a profoundly important discipline that requires special tools and methods to be properly undertaken.