Law is the discipline and profession that studies how to interpret and apply legal rules in a given context. Law shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways. It also reflects and shapes the values of a nation. In a more narrow sense, laws are “the rules, not of action in general, but of human action and conduct,” imposed upon “that noblest and most glorious of sublunary creatures, man, endowed with reason and free will.”
In the modern world, governments exercise broad control over their citizens through law. A government’s governing structure and the nature of its legal system shape its ability to fulfill the principal functions of law: to keep the peace, maintain social stability, protect individuals and minorities against majorities, promote justice, and facilitate orderly social change. Nations vary greatly in their capacity to serve these purposes, and in their ability to do so through the law.
Legal systems differ in how they organize the law and how they interpret it. Some have civil law traditions, while others are based on a common law tradition, and still others follow a mixture of both. Civil law traditions tend to be more centralized and rule-driven, while common law traditions are generally decentralized and more influenced by judges’ opinions. In the latter, the principle of stare decisis binds courts to a particular decision so that similar cases will reach similar results.
Laws and legal interpretations also differ across time, place and language. In many European countries, for example, the law changed in response to changing socio-economic and political conditions. Laws in some cultures, such as the law of Islamic Shari’ah, have long been influenced by religious beliefs and practices.
The laws of a society may also be shaped by the nation’s political landscape, particularly in how it distributes power and sets its priorities. Historically, as the United States has developed, its founders have striven to ensure that any one person or group cannot gain absolute power and stand above the law. This principle of separating powers into executive, legislative and judicial branches is known as checks and balances.
Terrorism is a special case of the law, as it combines elements of both civil and criminal laws. As a result, the handling of terrorist crimes often involves multiple agencies and jurisdictions. For instance, some countries prosecute terrorists through their national courts, while others have created a separate court to handle terrorism cases. These courts can be entirely new institutions, specialized branches of existing national or state-level courts, or slightly different versions of the country’s regular courts. They are intended to focus on the unique issues involved in terrorist crimes. Other countries have separate terrorism departments that work closely with their regular law enforcement agencies.