What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognises as regulating the behaviour of its citizens. It covers a vast range of subjects, from criminal and civil law to corporate and family law, and raises profound philosophical questions about equality and justice. Oxford Reference offers a comprehensive collection of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering law at every level, from international law and legal history to family and employment law and major debates in legal theory.

Law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways, and governs all aspects of life, including the distribution of property and power among people and between nations. It is the basis of social stability and security, but also imposes order on society through its punishment of wrongdoers and control over economic activity. It provides for social justice and regulates the expansion of state power, allowing for checks on government action such as a free press or a court of appeal to oversee its activities.

While the concept of law has evolved over time, the basic principles remain broadly the same. The sources of law are usually a combination of legislation passed by the legislature (or equivalent) and case law established by judges. When courts make decisions on a series of cases, they become binding precedent for future cases based on the same facts. This principle is known as stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by things decided.” Decisions made by a higher court — such as the supreme court of a jurisdiction — are typically binding on lower courts.

The main areas of law cover many aspects of everyday life, from the right to freedom of speech and religion, to private property rights and regulations on the provision of utilities such as water and energy. Other areas of law deal with the protection of health and safety, and of the environment.

A specialised area of law is contract law, which encompasses everything from contracts for the sale of goods to employment agreements. Property law deals with ownership of tangible property, whether it be real estate (“rights in rem”) or personal possessions (“rights in personam”). Intellectual property and trusts law are other specialised areas of law.

While the study of law is often framed in terms of political science and sociology, it is not an academic discipline separate from philosophy, religion, and economics. Various views of the nature of law have been put forward, from utilitarian theories like John Austin’s to naturalists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, who argued that law reflects innate moral principles that are unchanging. More recently, philosophers and economists have questioned the extent to which laws really reflect moral principles, as well as the value of a social contract.