Law is a body of rules that regulates human conduct and enforces the social order. It is a key component of social institutions and is enforced by governmental authority, but it is also the subject of much scholarly inquiry in fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. Law varies widely between societies and within regions of the world, with a wide range of legal systems such as civil law; common law; criminal law; and international law.
While the precise definition of law is a matter of debate, a number of key features can be identified. A fundamental principle is that everyone must obey the law. This requires a clear statement of rights and duties, together with means to punish transgressions and provide remedies. It also requires measures to ensure that the law is publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and that it respects core human rights.
For example, contract law outlines the obligations and responsibilities of people who enter into agreements that exchange goods or services of value. Property law defines a person’s rights and duties towards their tangible (such as land or buildings) and intangible property (such as shares or bank accounts). Criminal laws set out the consequences of breaking such agreements and the rules of procedure that must be followed to ensure justice is done.
Moreover, a legal system must protect the integrity of its citizens and the public interest. This includes safeguarding freedom of expression, preserving the environment and ensuring the transparency of government actions. It should also include checks and balances on the exercise of power, such as a free press and independent judiciary.
The most successful legal systems tend to be rooted in the principles of a constitutional democracy, with a separation of powers and balanced between legislative, executive and judicial branches. This provides a level playing field for all individuals and organizations, irrespective of wealth or status. A democratic legal system must ensure that laws are readily accessible and understood by citizens, while also allowing them to contribute to the development of laws through a participatory process.
In most countries, the practice of law is a licensed profession regulated by government or an independent regulating body such as a bar association, bar council or law society. Modern lawyers achieve a distinct professional identity through specified procedures such as passing a qualifying exam and completing a legal education that leads to a Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Legal Studies or a Juris Doctor degree. They must also undertake continuing professional development to maintain their qualifications. Legal systems vary around the world, but all must adhere to the international standards of the Rule of Law. These are based on the UN Charter’s principles of supremacy of the law, equality before the law and legal certainty, accountability, separation of powers, participation in decision-making and avoidance of arbitrariness. These standards are essential to a prosperous and stable society.