What is Law?

Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions that regulate human behaviour. Its precise definition is a subject of ongoing debate, but most agree that it involves a body of principles that define the rights and duties of people within a society and can be enforced through mechanisms such as police, courts, and sanctions. Laws may be made by groups of legislators, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges, through the compilation of legal decisions known as case law. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements.

Different laws apply to different parts of a country, but all are based on the same fundamental principles. Those principles vary, but they usually include such things as freedom of speech and religion, the right to property ownership, and equal treatment under the law. Laws also tend to protect people from the abuse of government power, for example by limiting the ability of dictatorships to oppress their people. This is why many people see the development of law as a central part of the history of human civilizations.

There are many different types of law, covering topics such as intellectual property, trusts, and torts. Intellectual property law protects the rights that artists, musicians, and writers have over their works – this includes copyright, patent, and trademark. Trust law is a set of rules that governs how money is handled, for example when someone puts their money into an investment or pension fund. Tort law allows people to claim compensation from other people who have caused them harm or loss.

A lawyer is a person who studies and argues the rules of law. They are usually called attorneys or lawyers in the US, and solicitors or barristers in the UK. The legal profession is divided into “transactional” attorneys who write contracts, and “litigators” who go to court.

The study of law covers many areas, including constitutional law; criminal law; civil law; family law; employment law; tax law; and international law. Oxford Reference offers comprehensive, authoritative, and accessible coverage of the entire field of law, complemented by charts and chronologies where appropriate. Our law entries are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. They provide expert definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic information on the key concepts and processes of law. Our content is also fully cross-searchable with other titles in our legal collection.