Understanding the Basics of Law


Law is the system of rules that a society or government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It is sometimes referred to as the “science of justice” or the “art of jurisprudence.” A person who studies law or legal issues can be described as a lawyer or a jurist.

Law can be divided into two broad categories: criminal and civil. Criminal laws deal with punishment of people who commit crimes such as murder, theft, and treason. Civil laws deal with compensation for people who have been injured physically or economically.

A nation’s legal system may be characterized by how well it serves the interests of its people. For example, a powerful nation with an authoritarian government can keep the peace and maintain the status quo but may also oppress minorities or political opponents. The goal of law is to promote the general welfare, protect individual rights, and provide for orderly social change.

Often, it is not clear or underdetermined what duties correlate with rights. For example, a right against an estate may only vest once certain conditions are met (e.g., once debts and existing claims are satisfied). In this situation, the right may not have a corresponding duty until it is exercised or the estate’s executor has passed away.

In addition to identifying what a right is, law explains how a right is exercised and enforced. The concept of the duty-right triad is an important part of this explanation. Rights that are active (claim-rights, privilege-rights, and power-rights) determine what right-holders ought to do, may do, or can do. Rights that are passive (immunity-rights) determine what they cannot do (Lyons 1970: 58; Sumner 1987: 29-31).

Other legal terms that can be confusing include:

case law – The use of court decisions to decide how other law should be applied in a specific circumstance. A lower court is typically obligated to follow the precedent set by a higher court in making its decision.