Law is the set of rules that govern people, societies and businesses. Law is enforced by the state or a private organisation to control behaviour and ensure that the interests of all are protected. Laws can be enacted by legislatures, resulting in statutes; by executive decrees and regulations; or established through judicial precedent.
Historically, the precise nature of law has been subject to philosophical debate. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s definition stated that law is “a system of command, backed by threat of sanctions, from a superior, to which men submit out of habit.” Aristotle’s concept of natural laws was more expansive, and referred to laws that govern all things in the universe. Then there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of natural justice, which argues that the law is a reflection of moral and unchangeable principles that exist in the world. The modern legal community broadly subscribes to either one of these theories.
The law is a complex topic that encompasses many different fields of endeavour. Banking law, for example, includes regulations about the amount of capital banks must hold, rules about best practices in investment and the rights that private companies have to water, gas, energy and other utilities formerly managed by the public sector. The law also regulates the financial markets, protecting investors from unforeseen events such as the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The law also covers the intellectual property that people create, such as art, music and literature, and it protects inventions that they make through a type of law known as patent law.
In civil courts, judges resolve people’s disputes and determine whether someone is guilty of a crime. They base their rulings on a combination of the facts presented to them, the legal reasoning they use and the law that exists in their jurisdiction. Judges must be impartial and treat all people fairly, regardless of their wealth or social status. They may also rely on past court decisions to shape the criteria they use when interpreting facts and deciding guilt or innocence. However, these past rulings can be unfair and lead to the marginalisation of groups in society. Fortunately, most legal systems have a process of appeals and a supreme authority that can remove laws that are unjust or biased.
Corporate law relates to the rules that corporations must follow to maximise profits, while remaining ethical and responsible. These are often documented in legal contracts and shareholder agreements. It is important to understand these documents, as they can have far-reaching consequences for the organisation and its employees, shareholders and clients. Legal teams are often involved in creating them and ensuring that they are compliant with the law. When a breach of law does occur, these professionals can help to minimise the fallout from the breach. Alternatively, they can help to prevent it from occurring in the first place. They can also provide advice on how to manage the risk of future breaches. This is a key function of legal advice, which is becoming increasingly sought after.