A set of rules enforced by a sovereign government to govern conduct and maintain order in society. Laws are created, enforced, and changed by the political process in order to protect individual rights, ensure social justice, promote economic growth, facilitate international relations, and maintain societal stability. The laws of a nation are usually written and codified through a legal system, which consists of judicial and administrative institutions. Law may also refer to the principles and practices of a given industry or field of knowledge, such as the laws of science, physics, or music.
A legal system differs from country to country, and even within a single country there is often significant variation. However, many systems share some common features based on historically accepted ideals of justice. A country’s security situation and current economy can impact its law-making processes as well.
The concept of law has been the subject of much debate and analysis by political scientists and philosophers. A common theme is the tension between the rule of law and the exercise of power. While the rule of law requires that government act in a morally correct manner, the reality is that governments are frequently corrupt or have interests that conflict with those of the citizenry.
Laws are generally based on custom and tradition rather than purely logical reasoning, and this is part of what makes them so difficult to change. In 1964, Fuller formulated a set of principles that he called “the inner morality of law.” These included the requirements that laws be general, public, prospective, coherent, clear, and stable. However, critics such as Hart saw these more as tools than morality, and he believed that the rule of law only worked in practice if it reflected the social realities of a particular time and place.
There are many different legal institutions in a country, including a judicial branch (courts and appellate courts) and an executive branch (the president, prime minister, cabinet, and other government officials). A court of law typically has a judge and several lawyers who represent parties or provide legal advice to the judges. Other legal functions include criminal prosecutions, which are handled by prosecutors, and civil litigation, which is generally overseen by public defenders who are assigned to cases where the defendant can’t afford an attorney. Probation is a sentencing alternative to imprisonment that involves monitoring convicted offenders released on probation. Be a law unto oneself means to take matters into one’s own hands, and to mete out justice as one sees fit without recourse to the normal legal channels of the community: “The townspeople took justice into their own hands when they murdered the sheriff.” These examples show that even in countries with established legal systems, the law can be used for both good and evil. However, some laws are more effective than others at promoting the rule of law and ensuring that people of all backgrounds receive the same basic level of protections.