Law is a system of rules, enforced by government agencies or the courts, which binds members of society. It has four principal functions: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The laws may be made by a collective legislature, leading to statutes; by an executive, through decrees and regulations; or, in common law jurisdictions, by judges, resulting in court decisions. Law may also be established by private individuals, who create legal contracts or wills, or by the state itself, with a constitution that encodes citizens’ rights. The political context in which law is developed is a key determinant of its effectiveness. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will likely oppress minorities or political opponents. Other political regimes are more open and accountable, but many struggle to serve the principal purposes of law.
A broad range of subjects are covered by law, from sex crimes to space commercialisation. For example, criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to social order and provides a framework for punishing offenders. The civil law addresses disputes between citizens, such as tort law (damages arising from car accidents or defamation) and contract law (rules about purchasing goods and services).
The study of law covers a range of academic disciplines, including history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Legal historians, for instance, examine how law has been used in the past and how it has evolved over time. Legal philosophers explore the nature of justice and consider questions such as whether legal decisions should reflect the opinion of a jury, how much power judges have to interpret laws in their own way, and whether judges are truly impartial and above politics.
Other academic disciplines that are closely linked to law include political science and public policy. In the latter field, for example, it is argued that the existence of an independent judiciary should be a fundamental principle of democracy and the rule of law.
The concept of law is a complex one, and debates about it are ongoing. For example, there are currently heated debates about the role of judges and their alleged independence from politicians. There are also discussions about how the legal system should be organised to deal with increasingly complicated issues, such as genetic modification and the use of force. These debates reveal how deeply rooted and important a concept law is, and they also highlight how the practice of law can raise profound ethical issues.