What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that governs people’s behaviour and ensures that a peaceful society can exist. These rules can be enforced by mechanisms like courts and courts orders. There are lots of different kinds of law, including contracts, property, intellectual property and criminal laws.

A country’s laws can be written or unwritten, and may be based on religious beliefs or books like the Bible or Koran. Law can also be made by a group legislature or individual legislators, which produces statutes. It can also be made by the executive through decrees and regulations or established by judges through precedent (a common law jurisdiction). Finally, it can be created by private individuals who develop legal systems based on their own personal experience and book learning. Examples of this include the Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law.

Many people think about law in terms of its purposes – the four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law relates to all aspects of people’s lives, from the way that they drive cars and pay taxes, to how they interact with each other in families, work and communities.

But defining law is a difficult thing to do. People have often interpreted it in different ways, depending on their own philosophy or beliefs. For example, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham said that law was a set of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience. But other people, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, have claimed that law reflects a moral and unchangeable set of principles that everyone is bound by.

Law’s role as a tool of social control is a central theme of much of the debate about its nature. Roscoe Pound, for instance, argued that laws function to satisfy social wants that could not be satisfied otherwise. More recently, Max Weber has reshaped thinking about the extent to which law is coercive.

The study of law is also about the wider issues and questions that it raises about people’s relationships with each other, how societies should be organised, and how a country should govern itself. For example, there are debates about whether judges should be allowed to use their own sense of what is right and wrong in deciding cases, or whether they should be purely objective and impartial.

All these debates show that law is a complex and fascinating subject to explore. Oxford Reference provides clear, concise and specialist encyclopedic entries on the main areas of law, covering all the key terms, concepts and processes that you will need for your research. You can find law articles on everything from contract law, tort law and property law to international law, family law and human rights law. You can also find comprehensive, up-to-date legal commentary on major issues, like the separation of powers and the constitution, from trusted sources. This makes Oxford Reference the ideal companion to your legal research.