What Is Law?


Law is a collection of rules that governs behavior within a community or country. It is a field of study that encompasses many disciplines such as criminal and civil justice, contracts, social security, property, international relations and even theology. The precise definition of law is a subject of ongoing debate, but most agree that it refers to a system of rules created and enforced by government institutions to regulate the lives of individuals. Law is a source of scholarly inquiry, influencing fields such as legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology.

Legal systems can be broadly divided into common law and statutory or codified systems. In “common law” countries, legal concepts are derived from precedent and judicial decisions rather than from legislative statutes or regulations. This system relies on the doctrine of stare decisis, whereby decisions of higher courts bind lower courts in subsequent cases. Statutory systems provide a more detailed and explicit body of law.

An important feature of law is that it is normative, in that it prescribes what people ought to do or not do. This contrasts with descriptive statements in empirical sciences such as physics (as in the law of gravity) or even social science (as in the laws of supply and demand).

A legal system must be transparent in order to promote adherence to its laws, and in order to ensure that people are treated fairly. This requires that all actors, including the state itself, are accountable under the law through clear and publicized procedures for adopting, administering, adjudicating and enforcing law. The rule of law also demands that processes for the administration of justice are accessible, fair and efficient and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

The broad scope of law includes the legal rights of individual citizens and of business entities such as corporations and governmental agencies. It also covers the responsibilities of public sector bodies such as utilities and transport providers, which are bound by a variety of laws and regulations to meet social responsibilities.

Law covers all aspects of human life, from marriage and divorce to the rights of children and the management of land and water resources. A comprehensive understanding of law requires an appreciation of the diverse legal cultures that have evolved throughout the world and the many different ways that legal principles are applied in specific jurisdictions. Oxford Reference offers a wide range of concise definitions and specialist encyclopedic entries on law, covering all major terms and concepts at every level of complexity. They are written by trusted experts and are complemented by glossaries, charts, timelines and full transcripts of legal proceedings where available. This breadth of coverage enables researchers to easily discover the information they need, wherever and whenever they need it. The Law Encyclopedia contains more than 34,000 definitions and entries on the law in its broadest sense, from criminal and tax laws to legal history and theory. It is an essential source of knowledge for students and professionals working in this crucial area.

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