Law is a set of rules that a social or governmental institution establishes and enforces to regulate behavior. It can be a system of criminal, civil, or administrative laws. Some laws are binding and must be followed, while others are discretionary and not required by the state to be observed. Laws can be based on a variety of sources, including common sense, religious teachings, or mystical traditions. The precise definition of law is a subject of ongoing debate.
Legal scholars have developed a wide range of ideas about the nature and purpose of law. Some think that law embodies a moral code, while others view it as an instrument of securing justice. Most theorists agree that laws are a means to an end—namely, to ensure social justice.
Some theorists believe that the purpose of law is to guarantee a basic standard of living for society’s citizens. This purpose is often expressed in terms of distributive and corrective justice, which are the two aspects of legal philosophy that aim to balance the competing claims of individuals within society.
Others believe that the purpose of law is to prevent social disorder, maintain order, and protect property and personal rights. This purpose is sometimes reflected in the laws of contract, property, and torts, which deal with disputes between individual persons or organizations. Criminal law deals with offenses against the state or community.
Another theory of the purpose of law is that it serves as a form of social engineering to meet society’s needs and desires. This is a view held by Dean Roscoe Pound, who considered law to be a social institution that regulates conflicting social interests.
Other important characteristics of law include its enforceability, clarity, and accessibility. Laws must be enforceable to ensure their effectiveness, and the language of laws must be clear enough for judges to interpret correctly. The law must also be accessible to people, so it must be easy to understand and apply.
Some important elements of law are arraignment, appeals, citation, and record. Arraignment is the court proceeding in which an accused person is brought before a judge, told of the charges against him or her, and asked to enter a plea (guilty, not guilty, or not responsible). An appeal is a request that another court review the decision of a lower court or tribunal. Similarly, a citation is a formal charge that a person has committed a crime. The term record is used to refer to a written account of all the acts and proceedings in a lawsuit. The record may include documents, audio recordings, videotapes, and statements made by witnesses. The term in forma pauperis (“in the manner of a poor person”) means that a defendant has not paid court fees, allowing him or her to be tried without an attorney. Probation is a sentence alternative to imprisonment in which convicted defendants are released under court supervision as long as they follow certain conditions. A public defender represents defendants who cannot afford private attorneys in criminal cases.