Definitions of Law


Law is the set of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It is the study of legal systems and processes and includes a range of different types of laws, from criminal to corporate to administrative to family and labour laws. It also involves a wide variety of fields within the discipline, such as international law, constitutional law, and private and public policy. Oxford Reference offers thousands of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on the major topics and concepts across this broad subject area.

Many people have varying opinions about what the law is, how it works and why we follow it. Generally speaking, however, most people agree that the law is a set of guidelines put in place by a sovereign, or superior authority, to govern behavior of its citizens. Most people would also agree that breaking the law could result in punishment, either a fine or imprisonment.

For most of history, the word “law” was used to refer to the specific laws that were in effect at a particular time and place. In modern times, the term is often used to mean any kind of governing rule or system, including a constitution, a treaty and even the constitutions of individual states or countries.

Some definitions of law focus on the social aspect of the concept, arguing that law is a means for a state to control its citizenry and encourage cooperation among those citizens. This school of thought is known as legal positivism.

Other definitions of law are more concerned with the process by which laws are created. For example, some legal scholars believe that the judicial interpretation of law has as much or more weight than the actual written text itself. In this view, judges make law by applying the principles of statutory and regulatory construction, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent to decide specific cases.

In the United States, for instance, there are statutes duly enacted by Congress and regulations that have the force of law through the Chevron doctrine. Often, lawsuits turn on the meaning of these texts and a judge’s interpretation of their meaning carries weight in similar future cases.

Some academics and philosophers have developed alternative approaches to law. Hans Kelsen, for example, proposed a theory of law that is rooted in the idea of a moral code. Some have criticized this view, however, for arguing that the purpose of the law is to control behavior through threats and other coercive methods.

Most of the common laws we abide by are actually a product of human elaboration. The Jewish Halakha, Islamic Sharia and Christian canon law are examples of this. Religious law may be explicitly based on religion, but many religious jurisdictions rely on further human elaboration of religious teachings into comprehensive legal systems through a combination of Qiyas, Ijma and precedent.