Law is the system of rules enacted and enforced by society to govern behavior and protect rights. It is an area of human activity in which many different professions are involved. These include lawyers, judges, police, and military personnel, as well as those who teach, write, and research laws. Law is also the name of the branch of philosophy that studies systems of law and how they work.
The precise nature of law is a subject of ongoing debate. Most people agree, however, that the law is a set of social restrictions that are binding on citizens. These restrictions may be based on religious principles, morality, or the needs of the economy or society. The law may also encompass criminal and civil codes, rules of procedure, and constitutional provisions. The law may also regulate a variety of activities, including business, education, communications, and the media.
In most nation-states, the laws are made by and enforced by political power. In unstable or authoritarian states, the people are sometimes able to revolt against existing political-legal authority and replace it with something more democratic. The nature of this replacement and the extent to which it is democratic depends on local circumstances, but the aspiration for more democracy and greater “rights” for citizens is a recurrent theme in politics and law.
A legal system consists of rules for resolving disputes and punishing wrongdoers. It also includes a structure for recording and preserving evidence in court cases. Laws may be made by courts, legislatures, or private organizations. In the United States, a system of federal, state, and local courts has evolved to handle disputes between individuals, between states, and between nations.
The most important part of any law is its intent, or purpose. An intent to violate a person’s rights is sufficient for a judge to convict him or her of a crime. The intent is determined by the facts of a case and by how the law is interpreted and applied by a court.
A judge’s interpretation of the law is called a legal opinion. If a judge writes an opinion that conflicts with another court’s decision, the later court’s opinion prevails. An attorney’s legal opinion is usually called a brief.
An appeal is a request to have another court decide whether a lower court or tribunal handled a case properly. The party making the appeal is called the appellant.
Arraignment is the court proceeding in which an accused criminal defendant is told of the charges against him or her and asked to enter a plea (guilty, not guilty, or no contest). A prosecutor is the representative of the government in a criminal trial. Public defenders represent defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers in criminal cases. A witness’s statement is testimony presented during a court proceeding such as a trial or deposition. An exhibit is a piece of physical evidence that is presented during a trial or deposition. A transcript is a written record of what was said in a court proceeding or conversation.