What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules governing a society or community. It can be created by a collective legislature, result in statutes, or established through the executive through decrees and regulations or by judges through precedent (normally in common law jurisdictions). In addition, private individuals can create legally binding contracts and may establish their own legal rights by arguing their case before a judge or arbitrator. Law can also refer to the profession of practicing law, which involves advising people about the law, representing them in court or giving decisions and punishments.

The purpose of the law is to protect and promote individual rights, preserve the status quo, ensure equality between minorities and majorities, maintain social justice and provide for orderly social change. The law serves a variety of other purposes and differs between nations. An authoritarian government, for example, may keep the peace and uphold the status quo but can oppress minority populations or even its own citizens. In other countries, revolutions can topple old regimes and replace them with new governments that promise a better future for their citizens.

While laws can be derived from religious precepts such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Shari’ah, they generally need human elaboration to form complex legal systems that are consistent, stable, and understandable. This elaboration is accomplished through interpretation, Qiyas, Ijma, and case law and forms the basis of both civil and common law.

There are numerous legal fields in which experts may specialize, for example: tort law provides compensation to people whose property or lives have been damaged, whether by an accident such as a car crash or by defamation or false advertising. Criminal law governs offenses against the state and its people, such as murder or robbery, and punishes offenders. The law of the land covers property ownership and the right to contract, as well as immigration and nationality laws that determine who can live in a nation-state and how they may acquire or lose citizenship.

There are many other legal areas and a career in law can be highly rewarding and intellectually stimulating. However, it is important to know how law shapes politics and economics, history and society in a variety of ways. The Oxford Reference Law collection includes over 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on all aspects of this broad discipline. Our coverage reaches from criminal and corporate law to family, labor, and tax law, and we include the major debates in law theory. This collection is essential reading for students and researchers at every level. It is a core resource for libraries and academic institutions. Our expert contributors include leading practitioners, lawyers and academics. This edition was updated to reflect changes in law and the way that it is interpreted and applied. It includes full-text online versions of all of the primary sources used to compile this entry, as well as additional content including the latest cases and legislative developments. This is a must-have for any student or researcher of law.