What Is Law?


Law is the body of rules and customs that a particular community recognizes as binding, often enforced through penalties. It is a vast subject, covering everything from the rights of private citizens to international treaties and the laws of nature. It is also the field that encompasses the legal profession, which includes judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals. Law is central to human society in many ways, regulating commerce and trade, setting standards for public safety, resolving disputes, and protecting the rights of individuals and groups.

Almost all states have some sort of legal system, with some having more detailed and complex systems than others. In the United States, for example, the law is based largely on judicial decisions that are compiled into case law. In contrast, some countries have civil law systems that rely more on legislative statutes and less on case law. In either system it is crucial to understand how the legal system works in order to effectively use it.

The purpose of law is to maintain social order, settle disputes, protect property and liberties, and promote and mediate the process of social change. Laws may also serve religious goals, such as moral guidance and the preservation of a religion’s teachings. Laws are influenced by many factors, including history, culture, politics, economics, philosophy, and religion. A nation’s constitution, written or tacit, may influence the way its laws are created and enforced; for instance, a constitutional democracy usually has a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches to prevent one branch from exercising too much control over another.

In the early modern period, utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham argued that the ultimate purpose of law is to promote the greatest good for the largest number of people. Other philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argued that there are innate moral laws that are part of the fabric of the universe. These views have both remained influential in contemporary philosophy.

The study of law is diverse and broad, encompassing such topics as contract law, criminal law, property law, family law, immigration law, nationality law, environmental law, and international law. Oxford Reference offers a comprehensive collection of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this vast subject area. Whether you are researching for an essay, preparing to take the bar exam, or simply curious about how our society is governed, this resource will provide the background and context you need.