Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating its members’ activities. It includes both positive (statutory) law, which is written down by a legislature or other authority, and negative (case) law, which is developed through legal decisions of courts and other tribunals. A related concept is criminal law, which sets out the crimes that are punishable by a state or other jurisdiction.
Legal systems are shaped by the prevailing cultural, political, economic and social conditions. This explains why there are so many variations in the laws of different countries, and why they often conflict with each other.
In the modern world, law is an important means of establishing and enforcing order. It aims to ensure that all parties are treated fairly and that property and rights are protected. It also defines the scope and limits of government power. It is therefore critical that the processes by which law is adopted, administered, adjudicated and enforced are transparent and accessible, and that they reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
The law is derived from multiple sources, including religion, custom and tradition, and societal consensus. The earliest forms of law were based on religious precepts such as the Jewish Halakha, the Islamic Sharia and the Christian canon law. These have been supplemented by human elaboration through interpretation, Qiyas and Ijma (reasoning by analogy) and precedent.
For example, a judge in a case may reference a previous court decision to determine how a new statute should be applied. Blackstone considered judges to be “depositories of the law; living oracles, who must decide in all doubtful cases, and are bound by oath to do so according to the law of nature and reason”.
Other sources of law include legislative and administrative bodies such as parliaments and governments, the constitutions of nations and states, treaties and conventions, and the statutes and precedent of the common law. Increasingly, international treaties and conventions have been used to develop standards in the areas of human rights, environmental protection and economic development.
A further source of law is normative, which refers to a standard or principle that dictates what people should or should not do. Examples include the principle that it is wrong to steal; or the commandment in Deuteronomy that judges must be impartial. These types of statements are unique to the discipline of law, and distinguish it from empirical or causal statements that might be found in natural sciences (such as the law of gravity) or even social science (such as the law of supply and demand). Unlike other normative statements, however, law can be applied equally on all members of society. This is a fundamental requirement of the rule of law, as outlined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.