The Basics of Law


Law is the system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is used to maintain order, solve disputes, and protect individual rights and freedoms. The four principal functions of law are to establish standards, govern conduct, resolve conflicts, and punish wrongdoing.

The law can be divided into many areas, including contract law, property law, criminal law, and torts. For example, contracts are regulated by contract law; property law establishes individuals’ rights and duties toward tangible possessions (such as cars or houses) and intangible assets (such as bank accounts and shares of stock); and criminal law deals with offenses committed against the state or its citizens, such as murder, larceny, and fraud.

Legal terms can be confusing for those not familiar with the field. Some terms that are frequently used include:

code – A compilation of public laws in a particular area, such as the United States Code which collates statutes from several sources into 50 titles and deletes language that has since been repealed. Legislative measures that have been introduced but not yet become laws are called bills.

precedent – A decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court that must ordinarily be followed by the current court unless there is a compelling reason or significant difference in the facts or law. Some cases establish binding precedent, while others are not binding and can be argued against.

judicial branch – The part of a government responsible for making and enforcing the laws. The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court, appellate courts, district courts, and other lower courts.

rule of law – The principle that everyone is subject to the law and that it is publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated. The rule of law also includes such concepts as supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, and legal certainty.

civil law – A tradition of legal systems that are not based on Biblical canon or common law, and which usually place more emphasis on the liberty of individuals and groups to cooperate in society. Civil law systems are found on all continents except Antarctica and comprise about 60% of the world’s legal systems.

sex offender – A person who has committed a crime against a woman.

article – A section of a legal document, such as a statute, code, or case. An article can regulate the parties’ duties and expectations, set out the measure of damages in cases of breach, or describe the jurisdiction in which a court has authority to decide a case.

lawmaker – A politician who makes the laws.