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What Is Law?

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Law is the set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a complex subject with diverse definitions, and its precise nature is disputed by many scholars. It has been variously described as a science and as an art of justice. Law is derived from custom and practice, and it can also be formulated by a legislative process, with enacted statutes, or by judicial decisions, which establish precedent. The laws may be applied universally to all people, or they may be applied to specific groups of people such as racial or ethnic minorities, the poor, or women.

The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways, regulating behavior and providing a mediator for relations between individuals and between societies. It is the basis for a variety of legal professions, such as lawyers and judges.

Legal systems vary widely across the world, ranging from traditional judicial tribunals to military courts and civil service agencies. The role of the law has been debated in a variety of philosophical contexts, from utilitarianism and liberalism to structuralism. The concept of the rule of law is a central aspect of the international legal system, and it requires the government as well as private actors to be accountable under a set of laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated, and that comply with internationally accepted standards and norms.

In most countries, law is regulated to ensure that public goods and services, such as education, health care, water, electricity, energy and telecommunications are provided fairly and effectively. In addition to promoting efficiency, regulation is intended to reduce the risk of abuse and promote equity.

A fundamental purpose of the law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect the rights of minorities against majorities, and promote social change in an orderly way. Different nations use different legal systems to achieve these goals, with some succeeding more than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace but oppress minorities and political opponents.

A variety of laws are based on religious doctrines and practices, including Islamic Sharia law. These religion-based laws are sometimes referred to as divine law or holy scriptures. However, they can also include secular rules for settling disputes. Religious law can be both positive and negative, in that it can limit freedoms while also protecting certain privileges and powers. The laws of a particular region, such as a state or country, are typically governed by constitutional principles and national laws. These are sometimes supplemented by regional and international laws. In the case of the United States, the Constitution and federal laws are complemented by administrative regulations and a federal court system. A legal system can also be influenced by the philosophies of its founders and the prevailing traditions. For more on the legal system, see legal education; jurisprudence; legal profession; and the law of the land.

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