Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. It can be formulated by collective or individual legislatures, resulting in statutes, decrees and regulations, or established through judicial decisions, which result in a body of precedent known as case law. Law can also be set by private individuals through legally binding contracts, for example property agreements.
The precise definition of law has been the subject of longstanding debate, and is a central part of philosophical thought, sociology and ethics. It has been described as a science, an art and a moral imperative. From a methodological viewpoint, the law differs from the empirical sciences (such as the laws of gravity) and from other disciplines such as social science. Its statements are normative rather than descriptive and causal, and it provides an order or guidance to human activities.
There are many different areas of law, which can be classified by their intended purpose, or the types of relationships they govern. In broad terms, these include criminal law, commercial law and administrative law. The subjects of family law, labour law and property law are more specific.
For instance, family law covers marriage, divorce and child custody; it also covers the rights of parents to their children. Labour law focuses on the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, employee and trade union, and covers issues such as worker safety and pay. Property law includes land law and personal property; it also covers intellectual property, company law and trusts.
In countries with common law systems, judicial decisions are given the status of law and placed on an equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. This is known as the “doctrine of precedent”, and it means that a court’s decision will affect future cases which address the same issue. In contrast, in civil law systems, judicial decisions are not automatically binding on future courts.
The law varies between societies, and there is a considerable degree of regional variation in legal practice and legislation. However, there are many shared features of the law in modern society, and it is these which underpin international treaties and agreements between nations. In addition, there are some legal fields that are cross-nationally relevant, for example human rights, tax and banking law. Articles about these will tend to be more technical and may take a position on controversial changes to legislation. These will usually appear in specialist encyclopedic publications. In other areas, articles will be more focused on current news and developments, and these can often be found in daily newspapers and periodicals. This style of article is suited to readers who are familiar with the subject matter and have a reasonably high level of knowledge. These types of articles are generally shorter than those found in encyclopedic publications. For this reason, the term “news” is sometimes used to distinguish them from more specialist articles.