A system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law is an ancient and enduring concept, with its precise definition a matter of longstanding debate. It may be broadly defined as a set of mechanisms that ensure a peaceful society, with the ability to enforce those rules and punish violations by imposition of sanctions. Law can also be described as the body of rules and principles governing a community’s relationship with its property, a term which encompasses both natural and human-created resources.
A variety of different types of laws exist, covering topics from criminal and civil procedures to medical jurisprudence. Laws are often characterized by the extent to which they are codified and how well they adapt to change.
Some legal systems are based on written constitutions, with rules encoded as fundamental rights, while others allow a more flexible approach to the law. In the latter case, changes to the law are made by legislative action or through judicial interpretation of existing precedent.
The extent to which laws are enforceable is another important factor. A legal system must be able to enforce its rules, and it is necessary that it include mechanisms for checks on the power of the state over its citizens. A democratically elected government can make this easier to achieve, but there are many cases of revolts against established political-legal authority, including those that seek a greater range of “rights” for citizens.
While there is no universal agreement on what the law actually is, it generally comprises a set of precepts deemed to be binding and worthy of respect by society at large. While a constitution may provide a broad framework, the specific laws of a country can be varied to reflect regional culture and to address local needs.
The purpose of the law is to protect people against abuses of power by their governments and by private entities, such as corporations or businesses. The law can also govern the transfer of ownership of property and other assets, ranging from land and buildings to intellectual property and personal possessions.
Civil law is a tradition that developed in the Roman Empire, and its principles were adopted by countries in Africa and Asia as they colonised Europe. Today, civil law continues in the form of legal traditions like the Egyptian Civil Code and the Dutch Codes, as well as in jurisdictions that combine it with common law, Islamic law, or other customary or religious principles.
Commercial law covers complex contract and property issues, and its roots extend back to the medieval Lex Mercatoria. It is particularly important in relation to companies, allowing investors to establish separate legal personality for their business. Other areas of commercial law include the law of trusts, insurance and contracts, bankruptcy and insolvency, and sales law. The field of space law is still developing, addressing the regulation of human activities in Earth orbit and outer space. Other areas of law that are being established and expanded include banking and financial regulation, labour law, taxation, and the law of evidence.