What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition has long been a matter of debate.

A law may be created by a legislature in the form of statutes; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or by judges in common law jurisdictions, in the form of precedent. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements. Laws may be used to limit freedom or to protect property and lives.

It is widely agreed that the main functions of law are to maintain peace and stability, promote justice, and provide for orderly social change. But the ways in which these goals are achieved differ from nation to nation, and are influenced by the social context within which laws are developed and implemented.

Some legal systems are authoritarian, oppressing minorities and preserving the status quo; others allow for popular participation in political and economic affairs (e.g., in democracies). In general, though, a system’s laws can be judged by the degree to which they reflect a nation’s values and culture.

There are many complex aspects to law. Among the more important are a legal system’s source of rules, its rules of interpretation, and its scope for adjusting to changing circumstances. A legal system’s structure, including its division into civil and common law, is another factor.

A defining feature of any legal system is the extent to which its judgments are binding on courts in other jurisdictions. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis, and is a central aspect of common law systems. In contrast, civil law systems often treat decisions by higher courts as authoritative, but they generally do not bind lower courts.

The study of law encompasses the whole spectrum of human activity, from the smallest individual actions to global governance. Consequently, it is an extremely diverse and rich field of inquiry. Its many subfields include criminology; constitutional law; criminal procedure; contract law; family law; property law; international law; and the philosophy of law.

Oxford Reference offers expert-level coverage of these and other related topics in law, with 34,000 concise definitions and encyclopedic entries written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. Topics range from criminal and administrative law to taxation, social security, and family law, and major debates in legal theory are covered as well. Each entry is accompanied by a chronology and charts when appropriate. This is an essential tool for academics, students, lawyers, and anyone interested in this important area of knowledge. It is part of the Oxford Dictionary of Law, which includes more than 34,000 articles that provide reliable, up-to-date, and engaging information on all aspects of the law. The collection is continually being expanded to cover the most current legal developments around the world. This new edition features a comprehensive index and a fully updated bibliography.