The Basics of Law


Law is a wide-ranging subject area that encompasses a variety of topics and perspectives. It covers everything from specific laws and policies to legal ethics, philosophy, sociology and economic analysis. Law is also a source of scholarly inquiry and debate and raises a number of important social and political questions.

Law is the system of rules and standards that governs a society or group of people. These can be written in a document such as a constitution or bill of rights, or they can be established through custom and policy. The legal system is made up of a series of institutions and individuals that are responsible for creating, administering, enforcing and interpreting the law. The legal profession includes judges, prosecutors, public defenders and private lawyers. Courts include local, district and appellate courts, as well as the Supreme Court.

The primary functions of the legal system are to define standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberty and property. It is the responsibility of judges and other legal professionals to interpret and apply the law in a fair and impartial manner. The legal process ensures that all citizens have equal access to justice and that societal values are represented in the decisions of the courts.

In a technical sense, the term law refers to any set of rules or principles established in a given jurisdiction and enforced by its courts. These may be in the form of a constitution or bill of rights, or may be based on custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. A broader definition of the term law can also include a body of moral and ethical principles governing human behavior: the law of self-preservation, for example.

Legal terms and concepts include:

quorum – The minimum number of members of a court that must be present in order to conduct business. A quorum is usually three or more judges, but a court of appeals might hold sessions en banc, when the entire bench participates.

discovery – The examination, before trial, of facts and documents in the possession of opponents to help prepare for a case. This is a requirement of the adversarial process in criminal and civil cases.

precedent – A ruling by one court that influences the decision of another court hearing a case with similar facts and circumstances. Precedents are binding unless and until overturned on appeal.

jury – The group of twelve people who hear evidence in criminal and civil trials and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. A jury must be impartial in order to render a fair verdict.

prosecutor – A government official with the authority to charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor must have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and has sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

probation – A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which a convicted defendant is released under supervision, as long as he or she follows certain conditions. Probation officers screen applicants for pretrial release and monitor convicted offenders while they are under supervision. public defenders – Lawyers who represent defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys in criminal cases.