Law is a set of rules enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of debate, but it may be seen as a means of setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The rules of law can be created by a legislative body, resulting in statutes, or they can be established through judge-made precedent, as in common law systems. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and agreements, including arbitration agreements. State-enforced laws can be explicitly religious, as with Jewish halakha and Islamic Sharia, or they can be more secular, as with European civil law, which originated in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Throughout history, law has been shaped by a number of factors, including culture, politics, economics and religion. It is important to understand how law can be manipulated in different ways, and this is the focus of political science. The law is also a tool of power, and it can be used by governments to control people or by businesses to gain competitive advantage. Law is a major component of many fields, such as sociology, political science, history and economics.
Modern legal systems generally distinguish between civil and common law. Civil law jurisdictions codify and consolidate their laws into a single code, while common law systems rely on judicial precedent. This contrast has led to a proliferation of specialist fields within each system, as well as a convergence of the two systems.
Some common law areas include contract law, which deals with agreements to exchange goods or services; property law, which establishes the rights of people toward their tangible possessions (such as land and buildings) and intangible assets (like bank accounts or shares); and criminal law, which establishes punishments for offences against society. Other common law areas include family law, which covers marriage and divorce proceedings, child protection and inheritance; labour law, which examines a tripartite industrial relationship between employee, employer and trade union; evidence law, which addresses which materials are admissible in court; and commercial law, which encompasses complex contract and property laws such as agency law, insurance law, bills of exchange, debt and bankruptcy law and sales law.
The law also governs the administration of government, through administrative law, and the security forces, through police and military law. Other fields governed by law include taxation, banking and finance, space exploration and outer space law. Generally, these subjects are regulated by government bodies or by independent professional associations of lawyers called bars, bar councils or law societies. Modern lawyers are required to meet specific standards of professionalism, such as passing a qualifying examination or undergoing a law degree program. They are usually employed by a law firm, although some work in the private sector or for themselves as self-employed lawyers. They are held to a code of conduct or oath of office, often based on the principles of integrity and honesty.