What is Law?

Law is a set of rules a community or state recognizes as regulating their members’ behaviour and which are enforced through mechanisms that can punish people who break the rules. Traditionally, the precise definition of ‘law’ has been a subject of debate. Bentham’s utilitarian definition was that it was “commands, backed by threat of sanction, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience”. More recently, philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau have argued that law is based on a moral code, reflecting natural laws that are independent of humans’ decisions and governing human interactions.

Law relates to many aspects of people’s lives, with different branches of law addressing issues in a variety of ways. For example, contract law regulates agreements between people to exchange goods and services, from buying a bus ticket to trading options on the stock market. Criminal law aims to prevent people breaking the law by prosecuting them for doing so, while family law deals with divorce proceedings and children’s rights. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible objects, such as houses and land (called real estate or real property) and intangible assets, such as shares of stock. Laws relating to intellectual property protect the rights of people who create things, such as music and literature, and the names and logos that they use to identify their business, called trademark. Competition law is the body of laws that aim to stop businesses using their economic power to fix prices or distort markets, from Roman decrees against price fixing to modern antitrust legislation.

The people who make and enforce laws are referred to as the judiciary, and judges resolve disputes between individuals and between groups of people. They also determine whether or not a person charged with a crime is guilty. They do this by examining evidence and making judgments based on that evidence, with some jurisdictions requiring that they be assisted by a jury of ordinary citizens.

Most countries have a common law system, with judges and the judicial process based on the principle of interpreting facts from a legal perspective. Other countries have a civil law tradition, with judges relying on precedent and the authority of a written code to determine what is right or wrong. There are also a few countries that have a canon law system, rooted in religious principles and scriptures such as the Bible or Koran. Other branches of law include administrative law, constitutional law and international law. For more on these topics see separate articles. Also available are articles on the profession of law and legal education, and a glossary of legal terms. Oxford Reference offers comprehensive coverage of the law, providing more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering every area of law, from criminal, tax and social security laws to international law, family, civil, property and commercial law, and major debates in legal theory. Our expert authors combine clarity of language and style with an authoritative, accessible approach to a broad and complex subject.