What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that a government or society develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. The word can also be used to refer to the people who work in this field, such as judges or attorneys. Law influences politics, economics and history in many ways and acts as a mediator of relations between people. Law shapes and is shaped by religion, philosophy and other disciplines, and it can vary greatly between jurisdictions.

Law can be broadly classified into civil and criminal laws, with civil law dealing with disputes between individuals and the rights of property and persons. Criminal law involves the punishment of people who commit crimes against society. A legal system can also include rules on obscene or threatening phone calls, terrorism and the financing of political parties.

The underlying purpose of any system of law is to preserve the peace and maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and provide for orderly social change. Some nations are more successful at this than others. For example, an authoritarian regime can keep the peace and maintain social stability, but it may oppress minority groups and promote social injustice. A democracy can balance the rights of citizens and promote social justice and a sense of fairness in its legal system.

A common view of law is that it is a set of rules based on rationality and fairness. It is not as simple as empirical science (as the law of gravity) or social science (as the laws of supply and demand). It is normative, dictating how people should behave and limiting what they can do.

There are many different views of law and debates about its nature. Some argue that there is no objective way to define law. Others suggest that a definition should include an element of morality and be based on reason and common sense.

Various fields of study can influence the way that law is understood, including ethics, philosophy and sociology. The subject is also influenced by the fact that it depends on humans, who have varied mental capabilities and can interpret laws in different ways. As a result, the concept of law is difficult to pin down.

Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering the main areas of law. From crime and employment law to international and tax law, Oxford Reference has a wide range of resources to help you understand this complex area of study.