Law is a system of rules that governs the actions of individuals and groups. It includes the enforceable standards that society sets up to regulate activities such as traffic and property ownership, and it also covers the penalties that are imposed when people break the laws, such as fines, imprisonment, or loss of freedom. People follow laws for many reasons, including safety, fair treatment, and morality. Laws may be based on divine scripture, human consensus, custom, or the results of a legal decision. They are enforced by the police and other government agencies. Law is a major source of social order and peace.
The law can be divided into civil and criminal law, depending on the purpose of a particular rule: Civil law is concerned with disputes between individuals such as contracts, divorce, or inheritance; it also covers the rights of persons in relation to each other, like freedom of speech and religion, and equality under the law. Criminal law covers crimes committed against the state, such as robbery and murder; it also defines offences that carry the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Traditionally, the law was not codified but instead relied on local custom and case law to adapt to changing circumstances. It became increasingly standardized during the Middle Ages, with legal maxims being compiled for guidance. Today’s civil law systems are mainly based on the concepts and categories of Roman law, although they often supplement them with local culture and custom, especially in Continental Europe and Great Britain (Scotland retains an uncodified version of their own law).
Modern legal systems are generally characterized by the dominance of the judiciary rather than a central executive authority. The law is also governed by codes of practice and professional associations, while judges are expected to have a rich legal education.
The earliest written law dates back thousands of years, with the Code of Hammurabi being one of the oldest recorded examples. The law of the Old Testament, Islamic Shari’ah and the Talmud are also considered to be legal documents. Other important sources of law include constitutional law, common law, and religious laws.