Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Historically, philosophical claims about the nature of law have depended on and contributed to answers to more fundamental questions regarding morality, justice and rights, the relations between social practices and values, the nature of knowledge and truth, the justification of political rule (see political philosophy) and so on. The most basic function of law is to establish an order that can be abided by, but that can also be contested and changed through the process of democratic or other plebiscitary processes. Law can be created and enforced by a collective legislative body, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations or, in “common law” systems, by judges through precedent (a form of legal logic called stare decisis).
The precise definition of law has been a subject of longstanding debate. Some scholars argue that law is a system of rules governing human behavior that can be derived empirically, through an analysis of the actual outcomes of particular cases. Others suggest that a more philosophical interpretation is required to explain the nature of law and its function.
Modern legal systems typically divide into two broad types: civil law jurisdictions, where legislative statutes are the primary source of law, and common law systems, in which judge-made precedent is binding. Many legal systems incorporate both of these models, with the result that there are varying degrees of consistency between different jurisdictions and among separate branches of the same jurisdiction.
Civil law focuses on agreements, contracts and other arrangements that involve the transfer of money or other property from one person to another, including marriages and divorces. It is often based on ancient legal traditions, which include the Roman Code and the German civil code. It includes many specific statutes and regulations governing such activities, as well as the legal procedures and precedent that make up the common law of contracts and property.
Criminal law focuses on the prosecution of those who break a state’s laws and the punishment of them. Civil law tries to ensure that people who break the laws receive adequate redress and compensation. It is influenced by a wide range of international agreements and conventions, as well as by national constitutional and political principles.
The purpose of law is to protect individual rights, maintain public order and safety, facilitate economic growth, keep the peace and preserve social stability. These are largely political purposes, and the success of law depends on the political context in which it is created. Nations with authoritarian or dictatorial regimes may not serve these functions very well; a nation-state with a liberal constitution, however, will generally be able to fulfill them. The prevailing form of government in a given country will determine the extent to which it is possible to create and enforce laws that reflect the desires and preferences of the majority of its citizens. The emergence of a legal system that is truly representative will require the participation of all citizens in its creation and in its amendments.