A Glossary of Law Terms and Concepts


Law is the set of rules and guidelines that govern human behavior. It is enforced by government agencies and interpreted by courts. In a nation, laws ensure that people treat each other fairly and that justice is served when crimes are committed. Laws are also used to keep order and protect property. Law is a part of the social sciences, and some of its subfields include criminology, criminal justice, and legal studies.

Laws are a result of political action, and the nature of politics and power varies from nation to nation. In some places, the people have sufficient political-legal power to make and enforce their own laws, while in others, the power rests with a ruling class that may oppress minorities or engage in violent social change (e.g., Burma, Zimbabwe, Iraq under Saddam Hussein). Some political-legal systems work better than others at serving the fundamental functions of law: keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting rights, and promoting social justice.

The main parts of a legal system are the courts, police, and prosecutors. Courts have the authority to decide disputes and issue enforceable decrees called judgments or orders. A court can also appoint officers to administer its affairs, such as a judge-arbitrator. Courts can also convene special panels called commissions to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, such as a prosecutor-general or an independent counsel. The judicial branch of the government also has agencies to screen pretrial applicants and monitor convicted criminals on probation.

A law student should have a clear idea of what he or she is interested in studying before entering the legal profession. This will help focus his or her study of the field and make it easier to choose a particular area of law. Some of the most important areas include contract law, family law, tax law, and tort law.

Legal dictionaries and glossaries can provide additional information about the terms and concepts of a field. A basic glossary for a field should include the following:

Some of the most challenging aspects of law arise from its methodological peculiarities. Law differs from other disciplines in that its normative statements have a prescriptive character, in that they direct how people ought to behave or what they should not do (see law, normative). This peculiarity makes the study of law difficult from a scientific standpoint. However, it is an intriguing field to explore, especially for those who are fascinated by the interplay between the public and private spheres.

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