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Law is a system of formal social control administered by government. In a broader sense the legal system includes all aspects of governmental decision making. Law includes the processes of enacting statutes and regulations, promulgating them, and enforcing them, that is, statutory law. It also includes the resolution of disputes, both between private parties and between parties and a governmental body. In the law of the United States this is termed civil law as opposed to criminal law which refers to the enforcement of statues.

Civil law proper is the system of statutory law derived from the Napoleonic Code, with a more remote background in the law of ancient Rome, and used in most of the world other than former British colonies. In Scotland and South Africa legal sytems survive with backgrounds in pre-Napoleonic civil law. In England, the United States (except Louisiana) and other former British possessions such as India, Canada, Australia, and Ireland the system of common law derived from Anglo-Saxon customary law is used. In states of the former Soviet Union and its satellites and other communist countries such as Vietnam, North Korea, China and Cuba a system of socialist law was developed. In Arab and other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran traditional Islamic Law derived from the Koran may be in use.

In addition to being part of the societal framework law is also an academic discipline, a body of knowledge, and a profession. lawyers, sometimes called by other names, as in England where the profession is divided between solicitors and barristers, are professionally trained in the United States at postgraduate schools of law. Many persons who attend law school never practice law but use their knowledge of law in another profession. See Law (academic) and jurisprudence For law as a profession, see lawyer and practice of law.

In science, the word law refers to a statement that describes regular or patterned relationships among observable phenomena, (see principle and physical law). Other principles include laws of logic and mathematics which describe rational ways of thinking. Laws of economics and psychology and other social sciences describe human behavior and interaction. Many adages are popularly known as "laws"; such as Murphy's law.

Codification of Law

Law is the formal codification of customs which have achieved such acceptance as become the enforced norm. The process of acceptance is accelerated by the existence of legislative bodies which seek to write or revise laws as needed.

Law codification involves the legislation and regulation of statutes; as well as the resolution of disputes. In the civil law system codification is also an attempt to structure the law according to fundamental ethical principles to create a sense of order and simplicity that all members of society can comprehend, not merely university trained jurists. Stating the law in simple, precise terms, understandable to the lay person without a specialized legal education, is the only way they can reasonably obey it or be fairly sanctioned for not obeying it.

This overlaps with the idea of a formal social legal code as understood in ethics. This may be understandable to the educated lay person but perhaps not to the ordinary lay person. For example, one can explain the idea of precedent more easily than that of the reasonable man, but it may be much harder to explain why precedent is "fair" to one without "higher education". The following are examples of such lay explanations of different branches of law, and theories of law.

They are not comprehensive.

Branches of Law, a sampling

  • Civil law has three accepted meanings:
    • Secular law is the legal system of a theocratic government, such as that in England, during the reign of Henry II
    • Private law seeks to regulate relationships between persons and organizations including contracts and responsible behaviour such as liability through negligence. This body of law enforces statutes or the common law by allowing a party, whose rights have been violated, to collect damages from a defendant. Where monetary damages are deemed insufficient, civil court may offer other remedies in equity; such as forbiding someone to do an act (eg; an injunction) or formally changing someone's legal status (eg; divorce). This body of law includes the law of torts in common law systems, or in civilian systems, the Law of Obligations.
    • The civilian legal system or civil law system is the general typology of legal systems found in most countries. It is an alternative to common law system and has its roots in Roman law. It is employed by almost every country that was not a colony of Great Britain. In most jurisdictions the civil law is codified in the form of a civil codes, but in some, like Scotland it remains uncodified. Most codes follow the Code Napolean in some fashion. Notably, the German code was developed from Roman law with reference to German legal tradition.

Law as academic discipline and profession

In addition to being part of the societal framework law is also an academic discipline and a profession. Lawyers are sometimes called by other names, as in England where the profession is divided between solicitors and barristers. Sometimes they are also called notaries. They are professionally trained in the United States at graduate schools of law leading to the J.D. degree (Juris Doctor). In other countries legal education is considered to start at the undergraduate stage taught in faculty of law leading to the L.L.B. or B.C.L. degrees. Most of these schools also have advanced legal degrees such as the LL.M. and the J.S.D. degrees. Many persons who attend law school never practice law but use their knowledge of law in another profession. See Law (academic) and jurisprudence For law as a profession, see lawyer, jurist and practice of law.

Further Discussion

Most laws and legal systems --at least in the Western world-- are quite similar in their essential themes, arising from similar values and similar social, economic, and political conditions, and they typically differ less in their substantive content than in their jargon and procedures.

One of the fundamental similarities across different legal systems is that, to be of general approval and observation, a law has to appear to be public, effective, and legitimate, in the sense that it has to be available to the knowledge of the citizen in common places or means, it needs to contain instruments to grant its application, and it has to be issued under given formal procedures from a recognized authority.

In the context of most legal systems, laws are enacted through the processes of constitutional charter, constitutional amendment, legislation, executive order, rulemaking, and adjudication; within Common law jurisdictions, rulings by judges are an important additional source of legal rules.

However, de facto laws also come into existence through custom and tradition. (See generally Consuetudinary law; Anarchist law.)

Law has an anthropological dimension. In order to have a culture of law, people must dwell in a society where a government exists whose authority is hard to evade and generally recognised as legitimate. People forego personal revenge or self-help and choose instead to take their grievances before the government and its agents, who arbitrate disputes and enforce penalties.

This behaviour is contrasted with the culture of honor, where respect for persons and groups stems from fear of the disproportionate revenge they may exact if their person, property, or prerogatives are not respected. Cultures of law must be maintained. They can be eroded by declining respect for the law, achieved either by weak government unable to wield its authority, or by burdensome restrictions that attempt to forbid behaviour prevalent in the culture or in some subculture of the society. When a culture of law declines, there is a possibility that an undesirable culture of honor will arise in its place.

A particular society or community adopts a specific set of laws to regulate the behavior of its own members, to order life in its political territory, to grant or acknowledge the rights and privileges of its citizens and other people who may come under the jurisdiction of its courts, and to resolve disputes.

There are several distinct laws and legal traditions, and each jurisdiction has its own set of laws and its own legal system. Individually codified laws are known as statutes, and the collective body of laws relating to one subject or emanating from one source are usually identified by specific reference. (E.g., Roman law, Common law, and Criminal law.)

Moreover, the several different levels of government each produce their own laws, though the extent to which law is centralized varies. Thus, at any one place there can be conflicting laws in force at the local, regional, state, national, or international levels.

(See conflict of laws, Preemption of State and Local Laws.)

Legal systems and traditions

Anarchist law - Canon law - Civil law - Common law - English Law - European Union Law - International law - Roman law - Scottish Law - Socialist law - Sharia (Islamic law)

Legal subject areas

Administrative law - Admiralty - Alternative dispute resolution - Appellate review - Civil procedure - Civil rights - Commercial law - Comparative law - Consuetudinary law - Contracts - Constitutional law - Courts of England and Wales - Corporations law - Criminal law - Criminal procedure - Environmental law - Equity - Evidence - Family law - Human rights - Immigration - Intellectual property - Jurisprudence - Law of Obligations - Labor law - Land use - List of items for which possession is restricted - Philosophy of law - Practice of law - Private law - Procedural law - Property law - Statutory law - Tax law - Torts - Trusts and Estates - Cyber law

Subjects Auxiliary to Law

Government - Legal history - Law and literature - Political science

Terms, case law, legislation and other resources

Legal books

Further Readings

See also: law (principle), religious law, legal code, natural law

External links


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