Law is a system of rules established by a government and enforced to guide behavior, maintain order, and ensure justice. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Laws can be general or specific, and can vary from region to region and even culture to culture. Law also is the subject of scholarly inquiry in areas as diverse as legal history, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis.
There are broadly two categories of laws: civil and criminal. Civil laws deal with disputes between individuals, such as lawsuits or issues of property rights. Criminal laws deal with conduct that harms the social order, such as a crime against an individual or against society itself, and can lead to imprisonment or fines for guilty parties.
In “common law” jurisdictions, judge-made precedent binds future courts and is considered a binding rule in addition to statutes adopted through the legislative process. In contrast, in “civil law” jurisdictions, legislative statutes are more detailed and judges’ decisions are generally less binding.
A law may be a written or unwritten document, or it can be a set of principles and practices. Laws may be enacted by legislative or executive bodies, by courts, or by private groups. Laws can be as simple as household rules or as complex as the constitution of a country. Regardless of their complexity, all laws serve four main purposes: establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberty and rights. Some systems of law serve these purposes better than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can oppress minorities or suppress political opponents.