Law is the set of rules created by a state to form a framework for ensuring a peaceful society, where people can live together in peace and their differences are resolved without violent confrontation. The law provides a mechanism for people to be held accountable for breaking the rules, and sanctions can be imposed.
In common law legal systems, the decisions of courts are recognised as “law” on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. This principle is known as the “doctrine of precedent” or the “rule of stare decisis”. Decisions of higher courts bind lower courts and ensure that similar cases reach consistent results. In contrast, civil law jurisdictions base their laws on the constitution and a legislative act called a “code”.
The legal system covers many fields, which can be broadly categorized as criminal, corporate, family, international, property and commercial. Corporate law, for example, concerns the law of companies — how they can be formed and run — and the rights and liabilities of shareholders. The history of the law is very long, and it has adapted to a variety of social settings and disputes over government.
Criminal law consists of the rules and procedures governing the prosecution of people who commit crimes. It is one of the most complex areas of law. For instance, the legal defences available to a person accused of a crime can be extremely varied and complicated. It is the job of a lawyer to know what these are and how to use them.
Family law is concerned with marriage, divorce and the rights of children. It also includes the protection of a woman’s rights in relation to her husband. International law deals with relations between nation-states and their citizens, and can include the right to asylum. Property law relates to ownership of and control over land, buildings and other physical objects, and the law of trusts, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy are all part of this area of the law.
The main functions of the law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities from majorities, and promote social justice. The law’s effectiveness depends on the political landscape of a country, and different countries have very different legal systems. Authoritarian governments may successfully achieve some of the basic functions of the law, but they can also oppress minorities and stifle the growth of democratic reforms. In order to be effective, the law must be accessible and understandable for all citizens. It must also be equitable, and provide checks and balances on power in the form of a free press, independence of the judiciary and mechanisms for smooth transitions of political authority. This is why democracy is a fundamental requirement for the proper functioning of law. It is only when these elements are in place that the full potential of law can be realised.