The Oxford Dictionary of Law


Law is the system of rules that governs a society and country. This body of rules is enforced by a controlling authority through penalties. Law is the foundation of social order and is essential to a peaceful world. Law protects people’s rights and provides for equitable change in societies.

Legal studies and the practice of law encompass a broad range of topics. Oxford Reference has over 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on this broad discipline, including criminal law; property law; family and inheritance law; corporate and tax law; employment law; international law; aviation law; and biolaw. It also includes entries on key legal terms, concepts, processes, and procedures; laws of war; law in history and culture; and law and the social sciences.

One of the most fundamental definitions of law comes from James Madison, who wrote in The Federalist Papers that “Law is a power exercised by men over other men.” This principle is not only important to understanding how government works, but it’s also central to the law’s primary functions: keep the peace; maintain the status quo; safeguard minorities against majorities; provide for stable economic development; promote social justice; and allow for orderly social change. The success of a legal system in fulfilling these functions depends greatly on the political landscape, which differs widely from nation to nation.

In many countries, the law is based on judicial decisions rather than legislative statutes. This approach is called a common law system. Under this doctrine, a judge’s decision in a case sets precedent and can affect future cases. This is known as the “doctrine of stare decisis.” In contrast, most European nations operate under a civil law system, in which legislative statutes set out more detailed rules for judges to follow when making their decisions.

Some legal systems are based on religious texts. For example, the Shari’ah, a traditional Islamic code of law, and the Talmud, a Jewish text that contains many legal judgments, are considered legal sources. These texts can be used as references by judges and lawyers.

Another definition of law is a set of rules that dictate the way an individual or company behaves. For example, an employer must pay employees according to employment law. Other examples include environmental protection, which serves to penalise polluters within domestic legal systems; and aviation law, which covers all regulations and technical standards pertaining to the safe operation of aircraft. These standards are framed by national civil aviation acts, which are aligned with the recommendations or mandatory standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation or ICAO. This approach can be seen in most jurisdictions in the developed world, and it is increasingly being adopted in developing countries. The emergence of this broader concept of law is an important step in the drive to ensure sustainable development.