What Is Law?


Law is the system of rules that governs people in a country or community. It shapes politics, economics, history, and society in many ways and is a mediator of relations between individuals.

Law has various definitions, but it is generally accepted that law means the rules of conduct developed by a government or society over a certain territory and enforced by the controlling authority. A legal system that serves its purposes well can keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and provide for orderly social change.

There are several different types of law, each focusing on a specific aspect of social life or business. For example, public law deals with laws that apply to all people in a country. Those laws include rules that are enforced by the police and courts, such as the right to free speech.

Private law concerns disputes among individuals and relates to the rights of property owners, for example. It is often seen as a kind of mediation between individuals, but it may also be involved in the resolution of commercial or industrial disputes.

Civil law involves the rules of conduct that pertain to people, things and relationships, and is primarily found in Europe. In some countries it is combined with other legal traditions, for instance in North Africa and some Pacific islands.

The most important civil law systems are those that have a codified form of law, largely in France and Germany. The code is an organized system of rules that are arranged in a written format and are accessible to all citizens and jurists. It favors cooperation, order, predictability and adaptability, as well as avoiding excessive detail and containing general clauses that permit adaptation to changes in society.

In common law systems, courts decide cases on equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and regulations issued by the executive branch. They rely on the doctrine of precedent (stare decisis), which means that decisions by higher courts are binding on lower courts and future decisions by the same court, to ensure that similar cases reach similar results.

Another important feature of common law systems is the rule that the judiciary must adhere to its own decisions, regardless of whether they are upheld by the legislature or the executive branch. This can sometimes lead to a rigidity in the application of the law that is criticized by some scholars.

Nevertheless, the principle of stare decisis is often referred to as “judicial deference,” and it remains an essential feature of many modern systems of public law. It has influenced the development of important concepts in American public law, including the concept of executive statutory interpretation and the doctrine of “arbitrary and capricious review,” which seeks to determine if an agency has adequately explained its decision in statutory, factual or technocratic terms.

The study of law is one of the most complex and diverse disciplines in the humanities, spanning a wide range of topics from criminal law to taxation to international law. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline, written by trusted experts for researchers at every level.