What is Law?

Law is the system of rules a country or community develops to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is enforced through a controlling authority, such as police or courts. People who are involved in the legal system are called lawyers or judges. The word law can also refer to a specific branch of law, such as employment or criminal law.

Many countries have a common law or civil law system. In a common law system, judges determine how to interpret laws based on their previous decisions in similar cases. A collection of these decisions is called case law. The common law can be amended by new legislation (laws). In a civil law system, a code sets out how judges should interpret the laws. The code can be amended by legislation, but the law is generally more rigid than a common law system.

Criminal law deals with the punishment for crimes, such as murder and robbery. Civil law deals with the rules governing contracts and property. Labour law covers the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union. Intellectual property law protects things that people create, such as music or art.

A legal system may also be influenced by religion, for example the Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia. Religious law is usually based on a holy book or prophetic word, and relies on further human elaboration through interpretation, Qiyas, Ijma and precedent. This can lead to very detailed legal systems, such as the Muslim fiqh and Jewish halakha.

Law relates to all aspects of life, from the daily tasks of eating and sleeping to the big questions of politics, economics and history. Its complexity and range make it a vast field of study. Some scholars define law as commands, backed by threat of sanctions from a sovereign, that people learn to obey through habit or custom. Others, such as Jeremy Bentham and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believe that law reflects the moral and unchanging laws of nature.

The practice of law involves a variety of specialties, from family and employment law to international and commercial law. Oxford Reference provides more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline, with clear explanations of key terms and concepts. Our coverage includes major debates in legal theory, as well as the main branches of law and how they relate to each other. It is designed to provide the tools you need to understand how law works, how it has evolved and how it affects your everyday life. Our comprehensive and authoritative reference is your one-stop resource for the world of law.