What is Law?


Law is the system of rules in a country or community that regulates people’s actions and protects their liberties and rights. The law influences politics, economics and history in many ways. The main purposes of the law are setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and establishing justice.

There are a large number of laws, with different kinds of rules covering many aspects of life. Some examples are contract law, property law, criminal law, tax law, company law, intellectual property and family law. The rules of a country are set in a legal code that contains principles and guidance for judges. The judicial branch of a country sets out how the law is interpreted and applied by courts and tribunals. Professionals who study and apply the law are called lawyers or jurists. People who work in the legal profession have titles that show their status, for example solicitor or barrister in the United Kingdom.

Some of the most important sources of law are religious beliefs and books, such as the Jewish Halakhah or Islamic Shari’ah. Cultural habits and traditions also play an important role in the development of laws. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian ideas about the law dominated Western thinking for several centuries. Some philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believe that the law reflects a moral order in nature.

In the modern world, most countries have a written constitution that sets out important rights and powers for the government. There is usually a separation of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary branches of a country. In the case of criminal law, the judiciary branch decides whether a person has committed a crime and the penalty that should be imposed.

There is also international law, which sets out the rights and duties of people in different countries, and which is often used to settle disagreements between nations. The Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war are a common example of international law.

The law is a complex area that touches on most of the major areas in society. Oxford Reference provides concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on all major topics in law. Its coverage ranges from the core elements of a legal system, such as contracts and property law, to the most important debates in legal theory. It also includes articles on the relationship between law and political structures. For more information, see legal profession; legal education; and legal history. For an examination of the relationship between law and social issues, see social justice; land reform; and human rights.