Law is a system of rules and regulations that regulates the behavior of people. Those rules are often formed through social or governmental institutions, but private individuals can also create legally binding contracts.
There are many kinds of laws, and the specific rules that govern a country can vary. The most common type is civil law, which is based on legislation and codification. Other systems include those influenced by custom, religion or societal traditions.
The sources of legal authority, in general, are legislation–especially codifications in constitutions or statutes passed by government–and custom. In some jurisdictions, these sources are supplemented by other sources, such as a religious code or scriptures.
In most countries today, civil law systems are the most commonly used. These systems are characterized by a comprehensive set of standardized codes that define the cases in which people can bring claims to court and the procedures for determining if they have been liable for an offense.
A major distinction in these systems is that judicial decisions are explicitly acknowledged as “law” on equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and with regulations issued by the executive branch, and are treated as such by future courts to assure similar cases reach similar results. This is called the doctrine of precedent, or stare decisis.
These systems can be divided into two main groups: (a) those that rely mainly on legislation, and (b) those that rely mainly on custom or religious law. The latter includes Islamic Sharia law, the world’s most widely used religious code.
There are a number of subfields of law, extending far beyond the core subjects into virtually every area of life. Some of these are listed below for convenience, though they often overlap and intertwine:
Regulation is a broad field that deals with the provision of public services. This could involve things such as energy, gas, telecomms or water, or could include more specific issues such as consumer protection and air transportation.
Companies, such as banks and insurance firms, also have laws regulating their activities. These laws, sometimes called company or commercial law, include areas such as contract and property law, agency and insurance law, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy law and sales law.
Competition law, tracing its roots back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade doctrine, is an evolving field that controls businesses who attempt to use their economic influence to distort market prices at the expense of consumers’ welfare.
Criminal law, also known as criminal procedure, concerns a citizen’s right to a fair trial and hearing in a court of law. It is a complex field and involves both trial law and appeals.
Other subjects include labour law, which deals with a tripartite industrial relationship between a worker, an employer and a trade union. This includes collective bargaining regulation and the right to strike. Individual employment law, dealing with workplace rights, such as job security and a minimum wage, is also an important area of study.