Law is a system of rules that determines how people can live, work and do business together. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, influencing the choices people make. It also sets out restrictions and punishments for breaking the laws. People are generally free within the laws to choose their own lifestyles, but they must obey the law in order to live, and the police and courts enforce it.

Laws are set out by a government, which is often called a nation-state (country). The state has an overall framework of laws that governs all its citizens, with specific laws that govern particular activities and situations. The state may also have a constitution, or a set of written principles about how the state should operate that is binding on all its citizens. The state also has a structure of government, with a parliament or congress, or a combination of legislatures and executive branches, that is elected (chosen) by the citizenry to make laws.

In some legal systems, decisions by courts are recognised as law on an equal footing with legislative statutes and regulations, in a system known as common law. The “doctrine of precedent”, or stare decisis, binds lower courts to follow previous rulings on similar cases, assuring consistency and reducing uncertainty about what is and isn’t permitted.

Other laws are set out in documents that people produce, such as contracts and agreements. Intellectual property laws, including copyright, patents and trademarks, determine the rights people have to create things like music, art or literature, and in inventions they might make. Trust law, which covers money that people put into a fund for retirement or other purposes, is another area of business law.

People sometimes have disputes that are not settled by a court, and mediation or arbitration is often used to help them reach a settlement. This is an alternative to the more formal way of settling disputes in court, which involves judges and juries. The concept of what is’reasonable’ in dispute resolution has led to some interesting legal arguments, such as the 1948 case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation 1KB 223 CA.

Most countries have some form of health and safety laws to protect people from injury or death at work, in public places or while doing recreational activities such as driving or flying. These laws are known as statutory or common law, depending on the jurisdiction in which they are made. Other types of law include aviation and shipping laws; banking and financial regulation; competition laws, such as the U.S. Sherman Act and English restraint of trade; medical jurisprudence; and biolaw, which is the intersection of law and the biosciences. These laws are often influenced by a nation’s culture and beliefs, as well as the underlying philosophy about how a nation should be run. Some are based on religious precepts, for example Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, or Christian canon law.

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