What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules, usually created and enforced by a governing authority, that governs the conduct of human beings in society. It shapes politics, economics, history and culture in many ways. It raises complex issues concerning equality, fairness and justice. As a subject of study, it is the focus of scholarly inquiry in legal philosophy, history and sociology.

Law covers a vast amount of territory, and there is much overlap among the various branches of the discipline. However, for purposes of organization and reference, the law can be divided into three broad categories. Criminal law covers the punishment of wrongdoing by government agencies and by private individuals and corporations, whereas civil law addresses legal disputes between individuals or organizations. Other areas of law include labour law (the regulation of the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union), intellectual property law (which deals with ownership of inventions and creative works) and property law (the rights and obligations people have toward tangible objects such as land and buildings).

The origin of the modern concept of law can be traced back to ancient Greece. Plato, Aristotle and Diogenes Lartius wrote extensively on the subject. Roman law became the basis for a large portion of the common law in the European countries that evolved into modern nation states. The medieval law of the Franks, Saxons and Jews, as well as Islamic Shariah, also have had a profound impact on world culture.

From a practical standpoint, the development of law has been driven by changing social needs and concerns. For example, laws relating to property were a response to the emergence of urban societies. In modern times, law has been shaped by the growing need for public accountability. This has led to new branches of the law regulating such things as the activities of political parties and the financial markets.

In addition, the law has incorporated influences from other areas of human activity such as philosophy, religion and literature. A wide range of legal theories have been developed to explain why laws exist, how they develop and are enforced.

A specialized form of law, called administrative law, is found in some governments and applies to the operation of the executive branch of the federal government. This area of law has expanded greatly with the growth of government and its role in managing social problems. Other types of law deal with such diverse subjects as the responsibilities of judges and lawyers, the granting of privileges and the power of impeachment (the process by which the House of Representatives may accuse a high-ranking official of wrongdoing for trial in the Senate). This article is part of our Law Collection. To view the full collection, visit our Oxford Reference website.

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