What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It includes the rules for the courts and the government agencies that enforce them, along with the customs that the communities themselves follow. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline, from criminal law to tax and social security laws. It also covers major debates in legal theory, family and employment law, international law, and much more.

Law differs widely from country to country, and it is often difficult to give a definitive definition. One common feature is that it sets out a framework for ensuring a peaceful society, and sanctions can be imposed if these rules are broken. The purpose of law is to provide a balance between individual freedom and the protection of people from each other and from the state.

In a democracy, the laws that are made and enforced are often dictated by the popular will. However, there are other ways to achieve the same goals, such as through dictatorships or military rule, and these are largely rejected by modern democracies. A country’s law will depend on who commands the military and political power, and whether they are able to maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, preserve individuals’ rights, and allow for orderly social change.

Generally speaking, there are three main areas of law: property, contract, and torts. Property law focuses on ownership of land and its various forms (e.g. fee simple, life estate, future interest, etc). Contract law deals with the different types of promises that people can make to each other, and torts deal with a wide range of wrongs that people can do to each other, such as defamation or injury to person or property.

A country’s law may be determined by its constitution, which gives its Congress the power to enact statutes and create regulations. These are codified into the United States Code, and they carry the force of law unless challenged in court. Courts can interpret the meaning of statutes and regulations, and their decisions can be important precedent.

Different schools of legal thought have a distinct view of what law is or should be. Natural-law theorists emphasize the rights and duties of both the government and governed, while positive law theorists see laws as simply a command of a sovereign, which those governed must obey. Other legal theories focus on long-standing patterns of dominance of the rich over the poor, and of men over women (ecofeminist legal theory). A more recent trend is to study law in a social context, as a means to understand how societies evolve. For more details, see history of law; constitutional law; administrative law; and judicial review. See also censorship; crime and punishment; and war.