Law is the system of rules and customs created by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior, enforce rights and privileges, protect the environment and promote peace and prosperity. It also provides the context for scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis.
Throughout human history, laws have been adopted and enforced in a wide variety of settings. The most commonly recognized functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The laws of each society are influenced by its culture, political economy and historical experiences.
In “common law” systems, judicial decisions are explicitly acknowledged as “law” on equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and regulations issued by the executive branch. The “doctrine of precedent”, or stare decisis, states that a court’s decision in one case will ordinarily bind subsequent courts with identical facts and legal issues. This enables the development of a body of law that is consistent and predictable.
Other legal systems have more formal structures that rely on written statutes, codes and judicial decisions. In these systems, the “rule of law” states that all persons, institutions and governments are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated and equally enforced, fairly adjudicated and that are in line with international human rights standards.
The law has an impact on every aspect of life in modern societies. Besides the obvious functions of defining rights and duties, it is also involved in many aspects of everyday commerce. Contract law regulates agreements to exchange goods or services, and property law defines people’s rights and responsibilities toward tangible personal possessions, such as land and buildings, and intangible property, such as bank accounts and shares of stock. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to society, and civil law resolves lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. The United Nations Charter recognizes the need for a uniform body of law that addresses international conflicts.