Law is a set of rules that people and groups use to regulate their behavior. This body of rules can be enforced through social or governmental institutions.
The purpose of laws is to create and sustain a safe and peaceful society by guaranteeing that everyone has the same rights and freedoms and that those rights and freedoms are protected from abuse by others. The law also helps solve disputes between individuals and with government agencies such as police and the military.
Disputes are inevitable in even the best societies, and the law provides a mechanism to settle these disputes without violence. For example, if two people claim ownership of a piece of land the law allows the courts to decide who owns it and protect their rights accordingly. In addition, the law sets standards that people must follow in their daily lives to ensure that they do not interfere with others. The law also defines the duties of those who work in public service, such as police or civil servants, and how they are expected to perform their jobs.
In the western world, most laws are made by legislative bodies, resulting in statutes and regulations, or through executive orders or decrees. In countries that follow the “common law” tradition, decisions by judges, called “case law,” bind lower courts through the doctrine of precedent or stare decisis. Private citizens can also create legally binding contracts, such as an employment contract or a mortgage, which are enforced by the courts.
Law is a vast and diverse field, with many subfields. For example, tort law involves compensation for damages when someone is harmed, such as in an automobile accident or by defamation of character. Criminal law deals with offenses against the state, such as murder or treason, and civil rights are guaranteed by constitutional guarantees. International law addresses the relationships between nation-states, involving issues such as treaties and territorial sovereignty. Space law is a relatively new area of law that addresses human activities in Earth orbit and outer space.
The study of law is a fascinating and important subject, encompassing many different areas of public life and policy. Oxford Reference offers authoritative, concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on every aspect of this broad topic, from the responsibilities and rights of citizens to major debates in legal philosophy. Our content is curated by leading scholars, providing trusted information for researchers at all levels.