Law is an organized system of rules developed and enforced by governmental or social institutions to govern behavior, with the precise definition subject to ongoing debate. It can be loosely defined as the process of justice and the practice of law. It also includes other fields such as ethics, sociology and psychology, just to name a few. Law is also used to specify and regulate conduct in many areas including civil law, criminal law, and international relations. In a broad sense, it refers to all the rules and principles that govern the administration of civil society activity, including: private rights, freedom, impartiality, government, and public officials.

The law definition may be divided into two parts. The first part refers to the authority that imposes the laws. It could be a government, an institution (such as a university), or a private body like a corporation. The second part of the law definition describes the freedom individuals have to participate in, and regulate their own behavior within, the system. For instance, a legislature could enact laws that protect workers from employer retaliation, prevent discrimination against women in employment, protect consumers from fraud and other abuses of power, or establish rules for tax allocation.

Many jurisdictions around the world operate on the same understanding of what the law is. A country’s system of jurisprudence therefore generally develops in parallel with the evolution of governing structure and political culture. Jurisprudence thus generally pertains to cases decided by judges. Unlike common law, the procedure by which cases are handled varies widely between jurisdictions. A legal tradition could be called customary jurisprudence if it is the result of practices that were taken for centuries in one particular jurisdiction but not elsewhere.

The legal system is controlled by specialized courts, which are empowered by statute, constitution, or common law. The jurisdictions in which these courts are found may be separated by state, and the cases they hear and determine are oftentimes different from those that would decide in a typical court. Most jurisdictions have a system of juries, although there are some states that allow juries to decide cases without a panel of judges. Civil and criminal cases, and even divorce and child custody battles, are tried before courts.

In contrast, the body of law known as civil law, which includes common law matters such as divorce, common law marriage, property, child support, and other areas not addressed by statute, is overseen by special courts known as legal bodies. Criminal law is the branch of criminal law that falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Courts. Civil law is any area of the law that happens to be administered by the courts, including private litigation, probate, trusts, and wills. In contrast, criminal law deals with crimes against society at large, whereas civil law tends more to deal with personal issues. There are sometimes overlapping lines of jurisdiction among the various branches of the legal system, but jurisdictions usually operate separately on the basic principles of legal process and procedure.

Each type of jurisdiction within the legal profession is necessary for the functioning of our legal system. The criminal justice system and all its branches–prosecution, defense, and even the regulatory bodies–enforce the rule of law. Civil law is the area that decides disputes between private parties and comes down on the specifics of those disputes. And, finally, the administrative law system enforces the policies of the legislative branches through agencies and judicial interpretations of the law.

By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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