Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law as a system helps regulate and ensure that a community show respect, and equality amongst themselves. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.
A general distinction can be made between (a) civil law jurisdictions (including Catholic canon law and socialist law), in which the legislature or other central body codifies and consolidates their laws, and (b) common law systems, where judge-made precedent is accepted as binding law. Historically, religious laws played a significant role even in settling of secular matters, which is still the case in some religious communities, particularly Jewish, and some countries, particularly Islamic. Islamic Sharia law is the world’s most widely used religious law.
The adjudication of the law is generally divided into two main areas referred to as (i) Criminal law and (ii) Civil law. Criminal law deals with conduct that is considered harmful to social order and in which the guilty party may be imprisoned or fined. Civil law (not to be confused with civil law jurisdictions above) deals with the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations.
Law provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness, and justice. There is an old saying that ‘all are equal before the law’, although Jonathan Swift argued that ‘Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.’ In 1894, the author Anatole France said sarcastically, «In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.»
Writing in 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle declared, «The rule of law is better than the rule of any individual.»Mikhail Bakunin said: «All law has for its object to confirm and exalt into a system the exploitation of the workers by a ruling class».Cicero said «more law, less justice».Marxist doctrine asserts that law will not be required once the state has withered away.Regardless of one’s view of the law, it remains today a completely central institution.
Numerous definitions of law have been put forward over the centuries. The Third New International Dictionary from Merriam-Webster defines law as: «Law is a binding custom or practice of a community; a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority or is made obligatory by a sanction (as an edict, decree, rescript, order, ordinance, statute, resolution, rule, judicial decision, or usage) made, recognized, or enforced by the controlling authority.»
The Dictionary of the History of Ideas published by Scribner’s in 1973 defined the concept of law accordingly as: «A legal system is the most explicit, institutionalized, and complex mode of regulating human conduct. At the same time, it plays only one part in the congeries of rules which influence behavior, for social and moral rules of a less institutionalized kind are also of great importance.»
There have been several attempts to produce «a universally acceptable definition of law». In 1972, one source indicated that no such definition could be produced. McCoubrey and White said that the question «what is law?» has no simple answer.Glanville Williams said that the meaning of the word «law» depends on the context in which that word is used. He said that, for example, «early customary law» and «municipal law» were contexts where the word «law» had two different and irreconcilable meanings.Thurman Arnold said that it is obvious that it is impossible to define the word «law» and that it is also equally obvious that the struggle to define that word should not ever be abandoned. It is possible to take the view that there is no need to define the word «law» (e.g. «let’s forget about generalities and get down to cases»).