The Study of Law

Law is a system of rules created by the state and enforced to ensure a peaceful society. The precise definition is not fixed; scholars, lawyers and ordinary people all have differing ideas about it. It is a complex subject, which covers a wide variety of topics within the discipline: contract law regulates the exchange of goods and services; taxation laws govern income and profits; employment law defines workers’ rights and obligations; property law dictates people’s ownership and responsibilities for tangible and intangible assets; family law covers marriage and divorce; criminal law sets out penalties for wrongdoing; and constitutional law sets out the foundations of a nation.

The study of law is often influenced by the wider political and social context: for example, revolutions in some countries can lead to a change in legal systems; repressive regimes may use laws to maintain stability and control the population; and many philosophies and theories of justice have been shaped by philosophical debates about the nature and purpose of law. Law can be a tool of empowerment for citizens: for instance, the right to vote or participate in public debate is a fundamental aspect of democracy. However, it can also be a tool of oppression, for instance, if an authoritarian government imposes peace and order, but denies people their freedom to protest or oppose the regime.

A government’s power to make and enforce laws is based on its military and economic strength, so the laws it makes are usually a reflection of its political and social policies. Laws are made by legislative bodies, such as legislatures and parliaments; by executive bodies, including ministries and agencies; or through the courts through precedent, known as stare decisis: in common law systems, decisions of higher judges bind lower judges, meaning that similar cases will reach similar results.

In a democracy, most laws are set out in a constitution, a written document that sets out the fundamental principles of a nation’s legal system. This document can be amended on occasion, and many countries have separate constitutions for different regions or types of law, as well as for specific areas like criminal or administrative law. The most extensive legal code in the world is the United States Code, which outlines all the general and permanent laws of the country, and is updated every six years.

The study of law is a broad and exciting area of academic and professional endeavour. It is a discipline that can be found in schools, universities and colleges at all levels, with students studying for degrees such as a Bachelor of Laws, a Master of Laws or a Juris Doctor, and lawyers being regulated by their legal societies. The discipline is also a source of intense controversy and debate, with the nature and role of law constantly changing to reflect new realities and social priorities. The articles in this section are designed to help readers understand this complex and fascinating field of enquiry.

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