What is Law?

Law is a system of rules that people in a society agree to follow to keep themselves safe and secure. It covers everything from contracts to property and even criminal punishment. It is enforced by police, courts and other institutions. People who break laws may be fined or put in jail. The law also controls what people can do in their workplace and in private life.

Almost all societies have some kind of legal system. Today, most nations have a constitution for an overall framework of laws and further laws to cover specific matters in more detail. The people of a country elect (choose) representatives to make these laws in a parliament or congress. These politicians create laws by passing bills and voting on them. They can also create new laws by using their executive power to issue decrees or regulations. People can challenge laws by asking a court to rule on them.

A person who studies the law is called a lawyer or a judge. Law schools are places where students learn to think about how laws work and how to interpret them correctly. Many countries have a system of courts that resolve people’s disputes and decide whether people who are charged with crimes are guilty or innocent. These courts have judges, lawyers and jurors who understand the law and how to apply it. Some countries have higher courts with more authority that can remove laws that go against the constitution or other higher law.

All systems of law have different purposes, but they usually serve one or more of the following: keeping peace and maintaining order; preserving freedoms, including those of minorities, against majorities; enforcing social justice; providing a mechanism for peaceful, democratic change; and making sure that government is not too powerful over its citizens. Unfortunately, some governments do not fulfill these basic functions well. For example, an authoritarian government keeps the peace but may oppress minorities and stifle political opposition. In contrast, a democratic government generally serves the interests of its citizens but can sometimes be inefficient or ineffective.

Oxford Reference provides trusted, authoritative and accessible information on all areas of law, from contracts and torts to international law and taxation. This collection of more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covers the whole spectrum of law, providing the tools you need to research your topic quickly and effectively. Developed by a team of subject experts and written for researchers at every level, this collection is designed to be your comprehensive companion to Law.