What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. Its precise definition is a subject of longstanding debate.

Legal systems vary and the specific rules that govern a nation may be determined by its history, connections with other nations, adherence to international standards, or religious beliefs. In the United States, for instance, most laws are derived from statutes and court decisions, with the latter being called case law. Other countries may use a civil law system, which relies on codes of conduct rather than on judicial decisions.

Laws also govern a variety of other subjects. For example, property law determines ownership of land and the items that attach to it, as well as rules for transferring such property. Intellectual property, trusts and commercial law are other areas of the field. Criminal law covers crimes and their punishments, including capital offenses such as murder and treason.

There are many different ways to approach the study of law, which is why there are so many diverse opinions on its nature. Some people argue that the laws of the universe are universal and unchanging, while others believe they are a product of human evolution. Still others suggest that the laws are a combination of both the former and the latter, with varying degrees of permanence and dynamism.

Regardless of the specific rules that govern a particular nation, the law is essentially a tool for enforcing the values of the community in which it exists. For example, the law may prevent certain kinds of behavior that might otherwise lead to conflict and instead encourages behaviors such as honesty and fairness. The law also establishes basic rights, such as the right to a fair trial and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Law has a profound impact on a society and, as such, there are many aspects to explore when studying it. Oxford Reference makes it easy to find concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on all the major areas of law. Written by expert authors, this authoritative resource covers criminal law, tax and social security law, family and employment law, and major debates in legal theory. It is the ideal companion for researchers at every level.