The law is a system of rules put in place by a government to define how people can live, work, and do business. These rules are enforced by courts and the police, who punish people who break the law with penalties such as fines or jail time. When you are following the laws set in place, that's called a legal activity; if an act breaks the law, that's called an illegal activity. A person can find out what is legal or illegal by looking at the legal code. The legal code is a written set of laws that the courts, police, and lawyers use to determine the legality of a situation and the punishments that can be used if an activity is deemed illegal. However, to keep these laws from becoming too overreaching, the rule of law limits the power of the government so that it can only use its power in a way both the people and the government agree on, as outlined in a country's constitution.
History of Law
Law and human civilization go hand in hand: For as long as humans have existed in communities, there have been guidelines put in place to keep people safe. From ancient Babylonian law chiseled in stone and set in the marketplace for all to see to the laws being made today, sets of laws have almost always existed, and they have evolved with the times to stay current with the changing beliefs of the people these laws were made to govern.
Types of Law
- Administrative law is for citizens who want to challenge government decisions; it covers the development of regulations and the operation of administrative agencies.
- Contract law sets rules for how items and services are bought and sold.
- Constitutional law focuses on the interpretation of the Constitution as it affects the rights of the government and the government's relationship with the people.
- Criminal law is centered on preventing people from breaking the law and punishing those who do break it.
- International law deals with how countries interact with each other in the areas of trade, military action, and the environment.
- Property law includes the rules and obligations a person has when land, homes, and objects are bought, sold, or rented. A subdivision of property law is intellectual property (IP) law, which involves copyrights or patents that protect creative output like art, music, literature, inventions, or logos.
- Tort law helps people get money when somebody harms them or their property.
- Trust law sets rules about investments such as pension funds and real estate.
Civil Law and Common Law
Civil law is the most used type of law in the world today and is based on the Constitution and statutes passed by local governments. Judges don't have much power in civil law cases; much of the law and legal precedent are already set, and judges merely need to use the laws and past legal cases to determine outcomes for current cases.
Common law also stems from the legal rules and decisions of the courts. Even though Congress writes a lot of statutes, a majority of rules exist because decisions by the courts go on to become part of the established set of rules.
Religious law is a set of rules based on religious beliefs or books of worship. Some countries have used religious law as their main legal system. For example, some Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, have based their legal systems on sharia, laws based on the Quran.
In the United States, the legislature, called Congress, is one of the three branches of government. These are the people who make up the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, D.C. Members of Congress are elected by the people to write bills and vote on whether or not those bills will be turned into laws.
Like the legislative branch, the judicial branch is another one of the three branches of government in the United States. The members of this branch are judges who resolve disputes and determine whether people are guilty or not. Judges can also determine that laws set by other parts of the government are unlawful or unconstitutional based on the evidence presented to them. Most countries with common law and civil law systems have a set of courts at different levels, each with more authority than the last, to allow for an appeals process.
In most democratic countries, the executive branch of the legal system is the governing center of authority. The executive is usually elected by the people, and this person then chooses who will make up their cabinet, a group of advisors who oversee specific sectors of the government. The executives act on the advice of their cabinet, and they have an important role in maintaining the set of checks and balances for the different branches of government.
Other Parts of the Legal System
- Police enforce the laws by arresting people suspected of breaking the law.
- Bureaucrats are government workers who control the activities of people who work in the government through written rules.
- Lawyers are people who have studied the law in depth so they can give people advice about their legal rights and represent people in court when they're suspected of breaking the law.
- Civil society includes parts of the community that are not part of the government but still create organizations and groups that protect people against human rights violations and safeguard individual rights.