Law is a system of rules and guidelines, usually enforced through a set of institutions. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus ticket to trading on derivatives markets. Property law defines rights and obligations related to the transfer and title of personal and real property. Trust law applies to assets held for investment and financial security, while tort law allows claims for compensation if a person's rights or property are harmed. If the harm is criminalised in a statute, criminal law offers means by which the state can prosecute the perpetrator. Constitutional law provides a framework for the creation of law, the protection of human rights and the election of political representatives. Administrative law is used to review the decisions of government agencies, while international law governs affairs between sovereign states in activities ranging from trade to environmental regulation or military action.
Legal systems elaborate rights and responsibilities in a variety of ways. A general distinction can be made between civil law jurisdictions, which codify their laws, and common law systems, where judge made law is not consolidated. In some countries, religion informs the law. Law provides a rich source of scholarly inquiry, into legal history, philosophy, economic analysis or sociology. Law also raises important and complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice. "In its majestic equality", said the author Anatole France in 1894, "the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." In a typical democracy, the central institutions for interpreting and creating law are the three main branches of government, namely an impartial judiciary, a democratic legislature, and an accountable executive. To implement and enforce the law and provide services to the public, a government's bureaucracy, the military and police are vital. While all these organs of the state are creatures created and bound by law, an independent legal profession and a vibrant civil society inform and support their progress.
All legal systems deal with the same basic issues, but each country categorises and identifies its legal subjects in different ways. A common distinction is that between "public law" (a term related closely to the state, and including constitutional, administrative and criminal law), and "private law" (which covers contract, tort and property). In civil law systems, contract and tort fall under a general law of obligations, while trusts law is dealt with under statutory regimes or international conventions. International, constitutional and administrative law, criminal law, contract, tort, property law and trusts are regarded as the "traditional core subjects", although there are many further disciplines .
International law can refer to three things: public international law, private international law or conflict of laws and the law of supranational organisations.
- Public international law concerns relationships between sovereign nations. The sources for public international law development are custom, practice and treaties between sovereign nations, such as the Geneva Conventions. Public international law can be formed by international organisations, such as the United Nations (which was established after the failure of the League of Nations to prevent the Second World War), the International Labour Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, or the International Monetary Fund. Public international law has a special status as law because there is no international police force, and courts (e.g. the International Court of Justice as the primary UN judicial organ) lack the capacity to penalise disobedience. However, a few bodies, such as the WTO, have effective systems of binding arbitration and dispute resolution backed up by trade sanctions.
- Conflict of laws (or "private international law" in civil law countries) concerns which jurisdiction a legal dispute between private parties should be heard in and which jurisdiction's law should be applied. Today, businesses are increasingly capable of shifting capital and labour supply chains across borders, as well as trading with overseas businesses, making the question of which country has jurisdiction even more pressing. Increasing numbers of businesses opt for commercial arbitration under the New York Convention 1958.
- European Union law is the first and, so far, only example of a supranational legal framework. Given the trend of increasing global economic integration, many regional agreements—especially the Union of South American Nations—are on track to follow the same model. In the EU, sovereign nations have gathered their authority in a system of courts and political institutions. These institutions are allowed the ability to enforce legal norms both against or for member states and citizens in a manner which is not possible through public international law. As the European Court of Justice said in the 1960s, European Union law constitutes "a new legal order of international law" for the mutual social and economic benefit of the member states.
Criminal law is distinctive for the uniquely serious potential consequences or sanctions for failure to abide by its rules. Every crime is composed of criminal elements. Capital punishment may be imposed in some jurisdictions for the most serious crimes. Physical or corporal punishment may be imposed such as whipping or caning, although these punishments are prohibited in much of the world. Individuals may be incarcerated in prison or jail in a variety of conditions depending on the jurisdiction. Confinement may be solitary. Length of incarceration may vary from a day to life. Government supervision may be imposed, including house arrest, and convicts may be required to conform to particularized guidelines as part of a parole or probation regimen. Fines also may be imposed, seizing money or property from a person convicted of a crime.
Contract law concerns enforceable promises, and can be summed up in the Latin phrase pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept). In common law jurisdictions, three key elements to the creation of a contract are necessary: offer and acceptance, consideration and the intention to create legal relations. In Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company a medical firm advertised that its new wonder drug, the smokeball, would cure people's flu, and if it did not, the buyers would get £100. Many people sued for their £100 when the drug did not work. Fearing bankruptcy, Carbolic argued the advert was not to be taken as a serious, legally binding offer. It was an invitation to treat, mere puff, a gimmick. But the court of appeal held that to a reasonable man Carbolic had made a serious offer. People had given good consideration for it by going to the "distinct inconvenience" of using a faulty product. "Read the advertisement how you will, and twist it about as you will", said Lord Justice Lindley, "here is a distinct promise expressed in language which is perfectly unmistakable".
"Consideration" indicates the fact that all parties to a contract have exchanged something of value. Some common law systems, including Australia, are moving away from the idea of consideration as a requirement. The idea of estoppel or culpa in contrahendo, can be used to create obligations during pre-contractual negotiations. In civil law jurisdictions, consideration is not required for a contract to be binding. In France, an ordinary contract is said to form simply on the basis of a "meeting of the minds" or a "concurrence of wills". Germany has a special approach to contracts, which ties into property law. Their 'abstraction principle' (Abstraktionsprinzip) means that the personal obligation of contract forms separately from the title of property being conferred. When contracts are invalidated for some reason (e.g. a car buyer is so drunk that he lacks legal capacity to contract) the contractual obligation to pay can be invalidated separately from the proprietary title of the car. Unjust enrichment law, rather than contract law, is then used to restore title to the rightful owner.
Property law is the area of law that governs the various forms of ownership in real property (land as distinct from personal or movable possessions) and in personal property, within the common law legal system. In the civil law system, there is a division between movable and immovable property. Movable property roughly corresponds to personal property, while immovable property corresponds to real estate or real property, and the associated rights and obligations thereon.
The concept, idea or philosophy of property underlies all property law. In some jurisdictions, historically all property was owned by the monarch and it devolved through feudal land tenure or other feudal systems of loyalty and fealty.
Though the Napoleonic code was among the first government acts of modern times to introduce the notion of absolute ownership into statute, protection of personal property rights was present in medieval Islamic law and jurisprudence, and in more feudalist forms in the common law courts of medieval and early modern England.
The word property, in everyday usage, refers to an object (or objects) owned by a person — a car, a book, a cellphone or an iPod — and the relationship the person has to it. In law, the concept acquires a more nuanced rendering. Factors to consider include the nature of the object, the relationship between the person and the object, the relationship between a number of people in relation to the object, and how the object is regarded within the prevailing political system. Most broadly and concisely, property in the legal sense refers to the rights of people in or over certain objects or things.
In common law legal systems, a trust is a relationship between three parties whereby property (real or personal, tangible or intangible) is transferred by one party to be held by another party for the benefit of a third party. A trust is created by a settlor (archaically known as the feoffor to uses), who transfers some or all of his property to a trustee (archaically known as the feoffee to uses), who holds that trust property (or trust corpus) for the benefit of the beneficiaries (archaically known as the cestui que use, or cestui que trust). The trustee has legal title to the trust property, but the beneficiaries have equitable title to the trust property. The trustee owes a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, who are the "beneficial" owners of the trust property. (Note: A trustee may be either a natural person, or an entity, and there may be a single trustee or multiple co-trustees. There may be a single beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries. The settlor may himself be a beneficiary.)
The trust is governed by the terms under which it was created. The terms of the trust are most usually written down in a trust instrument. The terms of the trust must specify what property is to be transferred into the trust, and who the beneficiaries will be of that trust. The trust is also governed by local law. The trustee is obliged to administer the trust in accordance with both the terms of the trust and the governing law.
Law and society
- Labour law is the study of a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union. This involves collective bargaining regulation, and the right to strike. Individual employment law refers to workplace rights, such as job security, health and safety or a minimum wage.
- Human rights, civil rights and human rights law are important fields to guarantee everyone basic freedoms and entitlements. These are laid down in codes such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights (which founded the European Court of Human Rights) and the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Treaty of Lisbon makes the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union legally binding in allmember states except Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – Poland and the United Kingdom.
- Civil procedure and criminal procedure concern the rules that courts must follow as a trial and appeals proceed. Both concern a citizen's right to a fair trial or hearing.
- Evidence law involves which materials are admissible in courts for a case to be built.
- Immigration law and nationality law concern the rights of foreigners to live and work in a nation-state that is not their own and to acquire or lose citizenship. Both also involve the right of asylum and the problem of stateless individuals.
- Social security law refers to the rights people have to social insurance, such as jobseekers' allowances or housing benefits.
- Family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings, the rights of children and rights to property and money in the event of separation.
Law and commerce
- Company law sprang from the law of trusts, on the principle of separating ownership of property and control. The law of the modern company began with the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856, passed in the United Kingdom, which provided investors with a simple registration procedure to gain limited liability under the separate legal personality of the corporation.
- Commercial law covers complex contract and property law. The law of agency, insurance law, bills of exchange, insolvency and bankruptcy law and sales law are all important, and trace back to the mediæval Lex Mercatoria. The UK Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the US Uniform Commercial Code are examples of codified common law commercial principles.
- Admiralty law and the Law of the Sea lay a basic framework for free trade and commerce across the world's oceans and seas, where outside of a country's zone of control. Shipping companies operate through ordinary principles of commercial law, generalised for a global market. Admiralty law also encompasses specialised issues such as salvage, maritime liens, and injuries to passengers.
- Intellectual property law aims at safeguarding creators and other producers of intellectual goods and services. These are legal rights (copyrights, trademarks, patents, and related rights) which result from intellectual activity in the industrial, literary and artistic fields.
- Restitution deals with the recovery of someone else's gain, rather than compensation for one's own loss.
- Unjust enrichment When someone has been unjustly enriched (or there is an "absence of basis" for a transaction) at another's expense, this event generates the right to restitution to reverse that gain.
Law and regulation
- Tax law involves regulations that concern value added tax, corporate tax, income tax.
- Banking law and financial regulation set minimum standards on the amounts of capital banks must hold, and rules about best practice for investment. This is to insure against the risk of economic crises, such as the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
- Regulation deals with the provision of public services and utilities. Water law is one example. Especially since privatisation became popular and took management of services away from public law, private companies doing the jobs previously controlled by government have been bound by varying degrees of social responsibility. Energy, gas, telecomms and water are regulated industries in most OECD countries.
- Competition law, known in the U.S. as antitrust law, is an evolving field that traces as far back as Roman decrees against price fixing and the English restraint of trade doctrine. Modern competition law derives from the U.S. anti-cartel and anti-monopoly statutes (the Sherman Act and Clayton Act) of the turn of the 20th century. It is used to control businesses who attempt to use their economic influence to distort market prices at the expense of consumer welfare.
- Consumer law could include anything from regulations on unfair contractual terms and clauses to directives on airline baggage insurance.
- Environmental law is increasingly important, especially in light of the Kyoto Protocol and the potential danger of climate change. Environmental protection also serves to penalise polluters within domestic legal systems.
Civil law is the most widespread system of law around the world. It is also sometimes known as Continental European law. The central source of law that is recognized as authoritative are codifications in a constitution or statute passed by legislature, to amend a code.
While the concept of codification dates back to the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon ca. 1790 BC, civil law systems mainly derive from the Roman Empire, and more particularly, the Corpus Juris Civilis issued by the Emperor Justinian ca. AD 529. This was an extensive reform of the law in the Byzantine Empire, bringing it together into codified documents. Civil law was also partly influenced by religious laws such as Canon law and Islamic law. Civil law today, in theory, is interpreted rather than developed or made by judges. Only legislative enactments (rather than judicial precedents, as in common law) are considered legally binding.
Common law (also known as case law or precedent), is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action. A "common law system" is a legal system that gives great precedential weight to common law, on the principle that it is unfair to treat similar facts differently on different occasions. The body of precedent is called "common law" and it binds future decisions. In cases where the parties disagree on what the law is, an idealized common law court looks to past precedential decisions of relevant courts. If a similar dispute has been resolved in the past, the court is bound to follow the reasoning used in the prior decision (this principle is known as stare decisis). If, however, the court finds that the current dispute is fundamentally distinct from all previous cases (called a "matter of first impression"), judges have the authority and duty to make law by creating precedent. Thereafter, the new decision becomes precedent, and will bind future courts.
In practice, common law systems are considerably more complicated than the idealized system described above. The decisions of a court are binding only in a particular jurisdiction, and even within a given jurisdiction, some courts have more power than others. For example, in most jurisdictions, decisions by appellate courts are binding on lower courts in the same jurisdiction and on future decisions of the same appellate court, but decisions of lower courts are only non-binding persuasive authority. Interactions between common law, constitutional law, statutory law and regulatory law also give rise to considerable complexity. However stare decisis, the principle that similar cases should be decided according to consistent principled rules so that they will reach similar results, lies at the heart of all common law systems.
Common law legal systems are in widespread use, particularly in England where it originated in the Middle Ages, and in nations or regions that trace their legal heritage to England as former colonies of the British Empire, including the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Ghana, Cameroon, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, and Australia.
In some religions, law can be thought of as the ordering principle of reality; knowledge as revealed by a God defining and governing all human affairs. Law, in the religious sense, also includes codes of ethics and morality which are upheld and required by the God. Examples include customary Halakha (Jewish law) and Hindu law, and to an extent, Sharia (Islamic law) and Canon law (Christian law).
Sharia and Canon law differ from other religious laws in that Canon law is the codification of Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox law (like in a civil law tradition), while Sharia law derives many of its laws from juristic precedent and reasoning by analogy (like in a common law tradition).
The philosophy of law is commonly known as jurisprudence. Normative jurisprudence is essentially political philosophy, and asks "what should law be?", while analytic jurisprudence asks "what is law?". John Austin's utilitarian answer was that law is "commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience". Natural lawyers on the other side, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that law reflects essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature. The concept of "natural law" emerged in ancient Greek philosophy concurrently and in entanglement with the notion of justice, and re-entered the mainstream of Western culture through the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
Hugo Grotius, the founder of a purely rationalistic system of natural law, argued that law arises from both a social impulse—as Aristotle had indicated—and reason. Immanuel Kant believed a moral imperative requires laws "be chosen as though they should hold as universal laws of nature". Jeremy Bentham and his student Austin, following David Hume, believed that this conflated the "is" and what "ought to be" problem. Bentham and Austin argued for law's positivism; that real law is entirely separate from "morality". Kant was also criticised by Friedrich Nietzsche, who rejected the principle of equality, and believed that law emanates from the will to power, and cannot be labelled as "moral" or "immoral".
In 1934, the Austrian philosopher Hans Kelsen continued the positivist tradition in his book the Pure Theory of Law. Kelsen believed that although law is separate from morality, it is endowed with "normativity"; meaning we ought to obey it. While laws are positive "is" statements (e.g. the fine for reversing on a highway is €500); law tells us what we "should" do. Thus, each legal system can be hypothesised to have a basic norm (Grundnorm) instructing us to obey. Kelsen's major opponent, Carl Schmitt, rejected both positivism and the idea of the rule of law because he did not accept the primacy of abstract normative principles over concrete political positions and decisions. Therefore, Schmitt advocated a jurisprudence of the exception (state of emergency), which denied that legal norms could encompass of all political experience.
Later in the 20th century, H. L. A. Hart attacked Austin for his simplifications and Kelsen for his fictions in The Concept of Law. Hart argued law is a system of rules, divided into primary (rules of conduct) and secondary ones (rules addressed to officials to administer primary rules). Secondary rules are further divided into rules of adjudication (to resolve legal disputes), rules of change (allowing laws to be varied) and the rule of recognition (allowing laws to be identified as valid). Two of Hart's students continued the debate: In his book Law's Empire, Ronald Dworkin attacked Hart and the positivists for their refusal to treat law as a moral issue. Dworkin argues that law is an "interpretive concept", that requires judges to find the best fitting and most just solution to a legal dispute, given their constitutional traditions. Joseph Raz, on the other hand, defended the positivist outlook and criticised Hart's "soft social thesis" approach in The Authority of Law. Raz argues that law is authority, identifiable purely through social sources and without reference to moral reasoning. In his view, any categorisation of rules beyond their role as authoritative instruments in mediation are best left to sociology, rather than jurisprudence.
As used by lawyers and legal scholars, the phrase "law and economics" refers to the application of the methods of economics to legal problems. Because of the overlap between legal systems and political systems, some of the issues in law and economics are also raised in political economy, constitutional economics and political science. Most formal academic work done in law and economics is broadly within the Neoclassical tradition.
Approaches to the same issues from Marxist and critical theory/Frankfurt School perspectives usually do not identify themselves as "law and economics". For example, research by members of the critical legal studies movement and the sociology of law considers many of the same fundamental issues as does work labeled "law and economics".
The one wing that represents a non-neoclassical approach to "law and economics" is the Continental (mainly German) tradition that sees the concept starting out of the Staatswissenschaften approach and the German Historical School of Economics; this view is represented in the Elgar Companion to Law and Economics (2nd ed. 2005) and—though not exclusively—in the European Journal of Law and Economics. Here, consciously non-neoclassical approaches to economics are used for the analysis of legal (and administrative/governance) problems.
The sociology of law (or legal sociology) is often described as a sub-discipline of sociology or an interdisciplinary approach within legal studies. While some socio-legal scholars see the sociology of law as "necessarily" belonging to the discipline of sociology, others see it as a field of research caught up in the disciplinary tensions and competitions between the two established disciplines of law and sociology. Yet, others regard it neither as a sub-discipline of sociology nor as a branch of legal studies and, instead, present it as a field of research on its own right within a broader social science tradition. For example, Roger Cotterrell describes the sociology of law without reference to mainstream sociology as "the systematic, theoretically grounded, empirical study of law as a set of social practices or as an aspect or field of social experience".
Irrespective of whether the sociology of law is defined as a sub-discipline of sociology, an approach within legal studies, or a field of research in its own right, it remains intellectually dependent mainly on mainstream sociology, and to lesser extent on other social sciences such as social anthropology, political science, social policy, criminology and psychology, i.e. it draws on social theories and employs social scientific methods to study law, legal institutions and legal behaviour.
More specifically, the sociology of law consists of various sociological approaches to the study of law in society, which empirically examine and theorize the interaction between law and legal institutions, on the one hand, and other (non-legal) social institutions and social factors, on the other. Areas of socio-legal inquiry include the social development of legal institutions, forms of social control, legal regulation, the interaction between legal cultures, the social construction of legal issues, legal profession, and the relation between law and social change.
The sociology of law also benefits from and occasionally draws on research conducted within other fields such as comparative law, critical legal studies, jurisprudence, legal theory, law and economics and law and literature.
The main institutions of law in industrialised countries are independent courts, representative parliaments, an accountable executive, the military and police, bureaucratic organisation, the legal profession and civil society itself. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government, and Baron de Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws, advocated for a separation of powers between the political, legislature and executive bodies. Their principle was that no person should be able to usurp all powers of the state, in contrast to the absolutist theory of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Max Weber and others reshaped thinking on the extension of state. Modern military, policing and bureaucratic power over ordinary citizens' daily lives pose special problems for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have foreseen. The custom and practice of the legal profession is an important part of people's access to justice, whilst civil society is a term used to refer to the social institutions, communities and partnerships that form law's political basis.
The judiciary (also known as the judicial system or judicature) is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. Under the doctrine of the separation of powers, the judiciary generally does not make law (that is, in a plenary fashion, which is the responsibility of the legislature) or enforce law (which is the responsibility of the executive), but rather interprets law and applies it to the facts of each case. This branch of government is often tasked with ensuring equal justice under law. It usually consists of a court of final appeal (called the "supreme court" or "constitutional court"), together with lower courts.
In many jurisdictions the judicial branch has the power to change laws through the process of judicial review. Courts with judicial review power may annul the laws and rules of the state when it finds them incompatible with a higher norm, such as primary legislation, the provisions of the constitution or international law. Judges constitute a critical force for interpretation and implementation of a constitution, thus de facto in common law countries creating the body of constitutional law.
During last decades the judiciary became active in economic issues related with economic rights established by constitution because "economics may provide insight into questions that bear on the proper legal interpretation". Since many a country with a transitional political and economic system continues treating its constitution as an abstract legal document disengaged from the economic policy of the state, practice of judicial review of economic acts of executive and legislative branches began to grow.
In the 1980s, the Supreme Court of India for almost a decade had been encouraging public interest litigation on behalf of the poor and oppressed by using a very broad interpretation of several articles of the Indian Constitution.
Budget of the judiciary in many transitional and developing countries is almost completely controlled by the executive. The latter undermines the separation of powers, as it creates a critical financial dependence of the judiciary. The proper national wealth distribution including the government spending on the judiciary is subject of the constitutional economics. It is important to distinguish between the two methods of corruption of the judiciary: the state (through budget planning and various privileges), and the private.
The term "judiciary" is also used to refer collectively to the personnel, such as judges, magistrates and other adjudicators, who form the core of a judiciary (sometimes referred to as a "bench"), as well as the staffs who keep the system running smoothly.
A corollary of the rule of law is the existence of a legal profession sufficiently autonomous to be able to invoke the authority of the independent judiciary; the right to assistance of an advocate in a court proceeding emanates from this corollary—in England the function of barrister or advocate is distinguished from legal counselor (solicitor). As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, the law should be adequately accessible to everyone and people should be able to foresee how the law affects them. In order to maintain professionalism, the practice of law is typically overseen by either a government or independent regulating body such as a bar association, bar council or law society. Modern lawyers achieve distinct professional identity through specified legal procedures (e.g. successfully passing a qualifying examination), are required by law to have a special qualification (a legal education earning the student a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Civil Law or a Juris Doctor degree), and are constituted in office by legal forms of appointment (being admitted to the bar). Most Muslim countries have developed similar rules about legal education and the legal profession, but some still allow lawyers with training in traditional Islamic law to practice law before personal status law courts. In China and other developing countries there are not sufficient professionally-trained people to staff the existing judicial systems, and, accordingly, formal standards are more relaxed.
Once accredited, a lawyer will often work in a law firm, in a chambers as a sole practitioner, in a government post or in a private corporation as an internal counsel. In addition a lawyer may become a legal researcher who provides on-demand legal research through a library, a commercial service or through freelance work. Many people trained in law put their skills to use outside the legal field entirely. Significant to the practice of law in the common law tradition is the legal research to determine the current state of the law. This usually entails exploring case-law reports, legal periodicals and legislation. Law practice also involves drafting documents such as court pleadings, persuasive briefs, contracts, or wills and trusts. Negotiation and dispute resolution skills (including ADR techniques) are also important to legal practice, depending on the field.