Laws are the formal rules that society makes for itself. They are made for various reasons: to settle arguments, to maintain a peaceful social order, and to promote justice (fairness) for every citizen. Some laws are made by governments. Others are set down by custom or religion.
In a democracy, the power to make laws is held by a branch of the government called the legislature. In the legislative chamber, politicians (usually elected to represent the views of the voters) introduce new laws and debate them. Through discussion and compromise, they try to gain support for a law and organize a vote on it. The majority of members must approve a law before it can be put into effect.
Politicians in different countries have different law-making powers. In some cases, a head of state can refuse to accept a law. Sometimes, political leaders may put forward a law that would weaken rights or freedoms that have been promised to all citizens. Such laws can be challenged by citizens in COURT.
Criminal law defines a person’s responsibility toward society as a whole. Breaking a criminal law is an offense against the public good, so the state pursues criminals in the name of the public. Civil law deals with a person’s responsibility toward another person. Civil laws cover agreements between people, such as property ownership, contracts, or marriage.
Most people obey the law because they believe it results in a peaceful society. The law is enforced by the POLICE. The risk of being caught by the police and punished reminds most people to obey the law. But some political activists deliberately break laws they disagree with—an act called “civil disobedience.”
Because law-making is part of national politics, most countries have very different laws. But there are also many similarities. English-speaking countries around the world share ideas laid down in the common law of Britain. French-speaking countries share parts of the law codes set down in France by Napoleon. There are also international agreements that many countries treat as laws, such as those to do with human rights.
Every government relies on a police force to find law-breakers, charge them with crimes, and bring them to court for a trial. The police are entrusted with enforcing the law, as well as protecting the rights of citizens.
In small societies, rule-breakers are usually discovered and punished by their fellow citizens. In complex, mobile societies, there are often weaker social links between people. This makes it harder for communities to police themselves. Some crimes also require the work of specially trained detectives.
Police forces in countries such as the US and the UK were created around the 1840s, to control street fighting between urban groups. Today, public order usually involves controlling large crowds or political protesters, and protecting property. Police are allowed to use force, if necessary, to maintain public order.
Police forces invest time in teaching citizens to prevent crimes—for example, by installing locks to stop burglars. Crimes can be prevented if the risk of being caught is increased. The percentage of crimes in which a criminal is caught varies. Generally, more resources are used to solve serious crimes than petty crimes.
A person accused of law-breaking is tried in a court, a public hall of justice presided over by a state official called a judge. The court hears the evidence both against and in favor of the accused. If the court finds the person guilty, it can impose a penalty.
A jury is a panel of usually 12 citizens selected from the general population. They hear all the evidence and decide whether they think an accused person is guilty or innocent. Juries represent the public during a trial, bringing with them a democratic power to balance the powers of state officials.
Different legal systems use different punishments to deter crime and discipline a law-breaker. Legal systems based on traditional rules tend to prefer penalties that cause physical injury to the guilty person (corporal punishment). Modern systems tend to prefer detention in prison or cash fines.