Law is a system of rules that a society or government develops to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It has many branches, such as criminal law, contract law, and family law. Some laws are very specific, such as the law against driving while drunk or the law that prohibits aggressive telemarketing. Others are more general, such as the law that requires drivers to wear seat belts. In a country with a well-developed legal system, the law can serve many purposes, such as establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting individual rights and liberties. Some legal systems serve these purposes more effectively than others. For example, a nation ruled by an authoritarian regime may keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it can also oppress minorities and prevent orderly social change.
In a law school classroom, the term “law” can refer to several things: (1) a course in which students study the law of contracts and other commercial transactions; (2) a body of written materials that describe the laws of a state or country; or (3) a particular branch of the law, such as criminal law, constitutional law, or administrative law. The concept of law is an important one for both lawyers and nonlawyers, as it involves the principles that govern a just society.
Legal concepts commonly used in practice include:
arraignment – A proceeding in which a defendant is brought into court, told about the charges against him or her, and asked to enter a plea (guilty or not guilty).
binding precedent – A previous decision by a court that must be followed by another court without a compelling reason or significantly different facts or issues. For instance, a district court is bound by the decisions of a court of appeals that can review its cases and all courts in the United States are bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions.
counterclaim – A claim that a defendant makes against a plaintiff within the same proceedings.
court reporter – A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.
jury – A group of people who decides whether a defendant is guilty of a crime. In some trials, the judge chooses the jury; in others, the jury is selected by a random process.
counsel – A lawyer who represents a party to a case. A defendant can have multiple attorneys, but the defendant’s representation in a criminal matter is usually by a public defender.
evidence – Any information presented in a trial that tends to support a claim or refute a claim. A lawyer’s job is to present evidence that supports his or her client’s position.
rule of law – A principle that describes an ideal society in which there is respect for the rights and liberties of all people, the government is limited in its powers, and laws are clear and fair.