Law is a system of rules established and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour and protect rights. Its precise definition is subject to much debate, with some describing it as a science while others see it as an art of justice. It can be a means of controlling freedom and preventing disorder, or a way to promote peace and cooperation between human beings.
Law covers an astonishingly broad spectrum of activities, from contracts and property to criminal and administrative procedures. It has a direct impact on people’s lives, from the safety of their homes to the quality of public services and utilities they receive. In a modern society it encompasses everything from the right to privacy and free speech to the right to work and travel. It relates to the conduct of politicians, judges and other servants of the state as well as private citizens.
In most countries, laws are a combination of statutes passed through the legislative process and decisions of higher courts. This is called a “mixed” legal system. Decisions of the highest court, known as case law or precedent, are binding on lower courts. This “doctrine of stare decisis” helps ensure that similar cases reach the same result and avoids confusion.
Judges and barristers are often referred to as the “depositories of the law” or the “living oracles.” Blackstone wrote that judges should be “held in the highest regard, and their decisions are to be placed on an equal footing with other decisions of the court. Nevertheless, their judgements should not be held as precedent, or they may be erroneous.”
The law is different from other sciences and disciplines in several respects. Its normative statements tell people how they ought to behave or what they are permitted to do or not do; unlike, for example, a physical law like the law of gravity, there is no possibility that it might be empirically verified. In addition, it cannot require behaviours that are impossible, since laws impose duties and restrictions that are inherent in the shape of the universe and its limitations.
There are many areas of law that have developed from specific controversies or needs. For example, competition law (antitrust) arose from Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade laws. Space law, which is a new field dealing with international relations in space, is a recent development that grew out of concerns about commercialisation and liability for damages. The law also includes a wide variety of codes and regulations, for example tax law or banking regulation. These codes set minimum standards that banks must meet and impose other conditions on banking, investment and insurance activities. The law also sets out principles and procedures to deal with accidents or disasters, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The law is a complex area of study, with numerous branches addressing the diverse activities and issues of modern life. It is a subject that requires considerable intellectual effort to understand and apply.