Law is a set of rules created and enforced by a society or government in order to deal with issues such as crime, business agreements, social relationships and property. It is broadly considered as a discipline that studies the principles and practices of legal systems, with the precise nature of the field being a matter of ongoing debate.

The word law is believed to be derived from the Old Norse word lag, meaning “laying order” or a “fixed tune.” At the most basic level, laws are established to keep members of a community in check and fixed to a way of life that promotes peace and discourages violence. In some societies, these goals are achieved better than others. For example, the law may protect citizens from tyranny and dictatorship, but it may also oppress minorities or political opponents.

Some laws are created and enforced by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees or regulations; or by judges through precedent (in common law countries). Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, or adopt alternative methods of dispute resolution to standard court litigation such as arbitration agreements.

While some laws are made to protect people from tyranny, dictatorship and exploitation, others are intended to achieve a wider range of social objectives, including protecting individual rights, maintaining the status quo and encouraging economic growth. For example, banking and financial regulation set minimum standards for banks to follow and rules about best practice for investment; environmental protection policies prevent damage to ecosystems; and utility industry regulations ensure that companies providing services such as energy, water and telecommunications act responsibly.

A nation’s legal system must be reasonably stable in order to allow for planning and coordinated action over time. A country that has unstable or corrupt legal systems is likely to be unable to maintain economic stability, and will not be able to defend its citizens against terrorism or sabotage.

A country’s laws are based on various sources, such as religion, custom, tradition and historical precedent. For example, Jewish law is based on the Talmud and midrash, while Islamic laws are established through Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (consensus). The legal profession has a distinct professional identity and is overseen by independent regulating bodies such as bar associations, bar councils or law societies. Lawyers must complete a specific legal process to obtain a licence to practise, and most gain their qualifications through formal education (e.g. a Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Civil Law or Juris Doctor degree). Some academics study the relationship between law and philosophy, politics and history. Other topics include comparative law and legal methodology.