The Basics of Law

Law is a system of rules that governs the conduct of people within a society and is enforced by the threat of penalties. It serves many purposes, but four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Some legal systems serve these purposes more effectively than others. An authoritarian regime, for example, may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but also oppress minorities and prevent social change. In contrast, a constitutional democracy allows for peaceful transitions of power and has the advantage of being responsive to changing social needs.

Law varies between countries, with some using a common law system while others use civil law. A common law system relies on judges’ decisions, which are then compiled and codified into a statute book. Civil law, on the other hand, includes codes that explicitly specify the rules that judges must follow in coming to a decision.

Most of the laws that govern people in the United States are federal statutes, but the Constitution and state law may also influence behavior. The Constitution prescribes the boundaries of federal law, and state laws typically establish civil liberties and specific local rules for activities like driving and education. International treaties, executive orders and court cases are other important sources of law.

Several theories attempt to explain why and how laws are created, ranging from utilitarian arguments to religious beliefs. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, argued that laws are commandments backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign, to whom people have a natural tendency to obey. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law reflects a set of moral principles that are inherent in human nature.

In addition to regulating many different aspects of people’s lives, laws are also used to govern the economy and business, finance, the environment and even religion. The laws governing these topics vary widely, and they often contain technical language that can be confusing to those without much experience with them.

Lawyers are trained to interpret and apply the law to specific situations. They are licensed to practice law (or jurisprudence) after passing an exam and fulfilling other requirements set by their state or country. They are known as advocates when representing a client and jurists when judging a case.

The article below is part of a series of legal insights that a law firm specializing in workplace relations posts on its website. It answers frequently asked questions about maternity leave and parental responsibilities, using clear language and including references to relevant legislation. The article’s format is consistent with the firm’s aim to provide a “service that helps clients understand their legal rights and responsibilities”. The wording of the article is appropriate for its intended audience, i.e., employees of companies with a range of sizes and industries. It is likely to be read by legal professionals and other people with a familiarity with employment law.