What Is Law?

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Law is a set of rules that a community or a government enforces through its institutions to regulate behavior. These rules can be imposed by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, by an executive, resulting in decrees or regulations, or by judges, resulting in precedent. Individuals may also create legal contracts. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator of relationships between people.

Law can be categorized into three broad subjects for convenience, though the subject areas often overlap: criminal law, civil law and administrative law. Criminal law deals with conduct considered harmful to the social order and punishes it through imprisonment or fines. Civil law deals with the resolution of lawsuits between individuals or organizations. Administrative law concerns how courts manage the process of deciding cases, including rules for how a case is presented and what evidence is admissible in court.

Legal theory is a source of scholarly inquiry into the nature and purpose of law. Scholars study the underlying philosophical, political and economic issues in laws and legal systems. In particular, law is an object of inquiry in jurisprudence, political science, sociology, philosophy and history. A central issue in jurisprudence is the question of whether law is a set of precepts that can be empirically verified or a system of human decision-making. In the latter case, law lacks a descriptive or causal character, unlike statements in empirical sciences like physical laws (like gravity) or social science (such as a law of demand and supply). Instead, legal theories are of a normative and prescriptive character.