Law is a system of rules that governs the actions of a community. It has a profound impact on people’s lives, shaping politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It is also the subject of extensive scholarly inquiry into legal history, philosophy and social analysis and often raises fundamental questions about justice (the proper distribution of privileges and burdens in a society).
Law covers an extraordinarily vast range of subjects. The core subjects include criminal and civil law, which deal with disputes between individuals and organizations or the state. It is a field of study that touches on almost every aspect of life, from immigration law and nationality laws to family and employment laws and major debates in legal theory.
The concept of law is complex, with its precise definition the subject of long-running philosophical discussion. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, argued that law is simply a set of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. Other thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law reflects the natural moral and unchanging laws of nature.
While the earliest legal systems were local in scope, the rise of nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries saw countries adopt a single set of laws for all citizens. These laws were known as the common law, and they consolidated the authority of courts, simplified procedures and standardized rules of evidence. These laws were often translated into the languages of the people and became a model for other nations to follow, creating a global civil code that included the rights of all.
Aside from the development of a global common law, each country has developed its own legal traditions, reflecting cultural and historical factors. For instance, Hindu and Islamic legal systems were largely supplanted by common law in India and Malaysia respectively, while Chinese and Japanese legal traditions reflect the influences of Western civil law.
Laws can be enacted by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges in common law jurisdictions, through their rulings and precedents. Individuals can also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that are alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.