Law is a system of rules that governs human conduct and is enforced by a controlling authority, such as a government. It influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It may be enacted by governments or private organizations and can be enforced through punishments, such as fines or imprisonment. Law shapes people’s lives in many ways, from regulating contracts to defining property rights. Its purpose is to promote social justice and orderly change. Some legal systems are more successful than others at this.
The law is a complex topic and is a source of much scholarly inquiry in the fields of legal history, philosophy, philosophy of science, social science, sociology, economics, anthropology and political science. It is also a field that raises important, difficult questions about equality and justice.
Law includes both a body of legal codes and the judicial process itself. Some countries, such as the United States, employ a common law system in which judges rely on decisions made in prior cases when they decide whether or not someone has committed a crime. This collection of case law is called precedent. In contrast, some countries have a civil law system in which statutes, or written laws, outline a particular course of action that judges must follow when making a decision.
One of the main features that distinguishes law from other scientific disciplines is its normative character. That is, it consists of prescriptive statements about how people ought to behave or not, and what they may or must request from each other. This feature is an important reason why law is so complex and challenging from a methodological standpoint. There are no means by which empirical evidence can be used to verify the correctness of authoritative statements about law, unlike in other sciences (such as the law of gravity).
Other distinctive features of law are its sensitivity to culture and its reliance on humans’ minds. For example, a person’s culturally defined view of fairness and justice will influence the way in which he or she evaluates a situation, even when it is a matter of law. In addition, it is possible that a person will disagree with the judge or prosecutor about the application of the law in a case despite the fact that both are using the same sources for their decisions.