Law is the set of rules that a society creates to regulate behavior. It is a complex and controversial subject, with a long history of debate. The precise definition of law varies, but in the broadest sense it includes any system of rules enforced through social or governmental institutions to control behavior. Various forms of law exist, including civil, criminal, and international. A person who breaks the law may face punishment such as fines or imprisonment. For example, it is against the law to steal in most countries, and if someone is caught stealing they can be arrested and put in prison.
The term law also refers to the profession of lawyers and judges, and the field of study that deals with legal issues. It can also be used to describe a government or political system, for example democracy, monarchy, or dictatorship. The phrase “the rule of law” describes the idea that all citizens are subject to laws created by a democratically elected legislature and are correlatively liable to those laws, as opposed to an autocracy or oligarchy where the rulers themselves are above the law.
Most of the world’s governments follow some form of the English common law, which is based on the laws of nature and revelation (Scripture) that were created by God. This objective legal order prescribes standards of conduct, maintains order, resolves disputes, and protects liberties and rights.
A law may be made by a parliament, a court, or a governing body, such as a city council. It may be a set of rules that all members must obey, or it may be specific regulations for an activity such as driving, working in a hospital, or playing loud music late at night. A law may also be a document that sets out the terms of a contract or agreement, such as a lease, a loan, or a mortgage.
The law can be divided into civil and criminal laws, with civil law focusing on the relationship between people. For example, contract law governs agreements to exchange goods or services, while property law defines a person’s rights and duties toward tangible possessions, such as land or vehicles, and intangible assets such as shares of stock. Criminal law, on the other hand, focuses on offences against the state, such as murder or theft.
Law is a complex and fascinating topic, covering everything from the law of nature to the latest developments in bioethics. Oxford Reference offers authoritative, expert-written entries on all aspects of law, with clear definitions and in-depth encyclopedic information across this vast and influential area of study. With trusted content, Oxford Reference is the ideal resource for students and researchers at all levels.