Law is the set of rules and regulations that bind individuals, businesses, governments, communities, and societies. The main functions of law include keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting individual rights, promoting social justice, and providing for orderly social change. Some legal systems serve these functions better than others.
Generally, law can be divided into two primary categories: civil and common law. The former is based on legislative statutes and customary law, and the latter is based on judge-made precedent.
The term “law” is derived from the Latin word legis, meaning “rule”. However, law is not necessarily the same as the written rule of a society; it may also be a norm that a legal institution adopts to regulate relations in a particular area.
A legal norm is an enforceable rule that a society has accepted as valid and applies to all the subjects it binds. Usually a legal norm is ratified by the legislature or by a court, and it becomes binding on all of the subjects that are bound by it.
While a legal norm is essentially in effect from the moment it is imposed, a lapse of time can end its validity. This can be done either by explicit derogation or through automatic derogation, which means that the authoritative organisation adopts a new normative act that effectively replaces the old one.
There are several types of legal systems used in modern nations, ranging from those that are based on a specific country’s history, connections with other countries, or international standards, to those that are based on a single religion or set of scriptures. Most legal systems fall into two groups: civil law and common law, although a third group based on religious precepts is accepted by some religions.
Civil law is a legal system that mainly relies on legislation and codifications of the laws in constitutions or statutes passed by governments. It is the dominant form of law in most countries.
It is not a precise classification, as different jurisdictions rely on a number of sources that are recognised as authoritatively binding. This includes legislation, especially codifications in constitutional or statutes passed by governments; custom; and the doctrine of stare decisis.
The doctrine of stare decisis states that a higher court’s decision binds lower courts and future decisions, to make sure that similar cases reach similar results. This is a key feature of common law systems, where the judicial decisions are more detailed than those passed through legislative processes, and they are also more firmly grounded in reasoning than their counterparts in civil law.
Historically, law has been a powerful tool for settling conflicts between different peoples. In medieval Europe, it was a source of power in conflicts between princes, feudal lords and the peasants, which often led to violence. It was also a powerful means of determining political boundaries. During colonialism, it was an important part of the process of imposing peace in countries that were not native to Europe.