Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.
A key aspect of the concept of law is that it imposes a standard of fairness and equality on people regardless of social class, wealth or background. But achieving that goal is challenging and requires a system of laws that is accessible, understandable and responsive to the needs of different people and communities.
In addition to establishing the standards of fairness, law ensures that individuals are protected from exploitation and from the violence of criminal groups. It also protects the property of those who own it, and it provides ways to resolve disputes peacefully rather than through war.
Legal systems can be organised in a number of ways, with varying levels of central control and autonomy. Law can be imposed by the legislative branch, in the form of statutes, by executive decree or regulation, or by judges through case law (in “common law” jurisdictions). Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts that are enforceable by courts, and can choose alternative dispute resolution procedures such as arbitration.
The most important function of law is ensuring that government officials, police and public servants respect human rights, act fairly and do their jobs honestly. But law also provides an invaluable source of scholarly inquiry into many areas, such as history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. It raises complex issues of equality and fairness, especially with regard to the distribution of power and resources within societies.
As a result of the wide variety of political systems around the world, laws differ from one country to another. Despite the differences, there are some common elements of law that distinguish it from all other types of social organisation.
A major difference is the way in which law is written and organised. In modern nations that use the civil law system, a comprehensive set of codified legal statutes are regarded as authoritative sources of law. These statutory codes define the cases that can be brought to court, how claims are handled and the punishment for offences. Civil law is more formal and structured than common law.
Other important aspects of law include the concept of evidence and the role of the judge. Evidence is presented to a court in the form of testimony, documents and other material. This evidence may be used by the lawyers for both sides to present their cases. Courts keep a record of all proceedings, which is called a docket. Sometimes, a judge will decide a case with the help of other judges, a process known as a bench trial. But some courts, particularly higher-level courts, can choose to hear a case on its own, which is known as sitting en banc.