Law is a system of rules that governs human behavior and activities. It establishes standards and provides order, maintains and resolves disputes, and protects people’s liberties and rights. It is a complex and overlapping field of study, with scholars at various points in history developing different ideas about its nature.
The definition of law is constantly evolving, influenced by cultural and social contexts as well as legal and philosophical traditions. For example, Max Weber reshaped the way we think about law as a tool of state coercion, while Hans Kelsen proposed his ‘pure theory of law’. More recently, the idea that law is a ‘normative science’ has been endorsed by scholars such as Gary Becker.
A basic principle of law is that everyone is equal before the law. This is a key reason why it’s important to have impartial judges and lawyers, and a fair and transparent court system. It’s also why it’s important to have an objective test for when a law is justified, such as cost-benefit analysis.
Laws set out how a country or community should be run, whether in areas such as health and safety, taxation, trade, the environment or war. They can also regulate relationships between individuals or businesses, such as contracts, torts and property law. For example, a doctor who treats a patient without consent may be sued for medical negligence. Laws can be international in scope, governing how countries should interact with each other or with non-state actors such as corporations or multinational organizations.
The laws of a nation can be based on ancient traditions or more modern ideas. For example, a constitution is a written set of laws that forms the basis for a democratic government. In the past, many nations used a common law system, with judges and juries deciding cases on the basis of their interpretation of the law. This is still a popular approach in some places.
Other types of laws include civil and criminal law, employment and family law, and the principles of property and inheritance. There are also international laws that cover issues such as the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.
Law is a vast field to explore, and it’s impossible to cover every aspect in this article. For more information, see the Oxford Reference entry on Law, or browse the law section of our Topics guide to find articles on specific topics. Also, for a comprehensive list of legal terms and concepts, see our Glossary of Law. This resource is available online and in print. The dictionary includes concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries, written by trusted experts for researchers at all levels. It contains more than 34,000 entries covering all aspects of law, from criminal and corporate law to human rights and international law. It is a valuable reference tool that helps users understand how the law works and why it’s important. It’s a must for any library or law school.