What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is a source of social restrictions that may be imposed for ethical, religious, moral or economic reasons, as well as the foundation for political systems. Laws can be made by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, or by the executive through decrees and regulations or established through precedent by judges, in common law legal systems. It is a broad subject that spans many fields of study, and its precise definition has been the source of long-standing debate.

The word is derived from the Latin lege, meaning “to teach.” In Christianity it has been used to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures, with particular focus on the commandments and regulations of the Mosaic covenant: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not steal thy neighbour’s wife, nor take a gift; for a gift doeth blind the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous” (Proverbs 24:23). A central tenet of the rule of law states that public and private actors—including the government itself—are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated. This requires that justice is accessible, impartial, and effective, and that processes for adopting, administering, and enforcing the law are transparent, fair, and accountable.

Moreover, the law is permanent as to time and universal as to place: it applies in every jurisdiction in which it is binding. Whether in the form of legislative statutes, executive decrees and regulations, or judges’ decisions under the doctrine of stare decisis, it governs citizens, organizations and businesses alike.

Because of its vast scope, there are numerous branches of law: contract law, for example, regulates agreements to exchange goods or services and includes everything from a car lease to the trading of options on the stock market. Tort law determines the compensation that a person is entitled to receive when his or her rights are violated, such as in an automobile accident or defamation of character. Criminal law governs conduct that is deemed harmful to society and provides for the punishment of offenders.

In addition to providing a source of practical guidance, the study of law is a rich area for scholarly inquiry: philosophical questions concerning equality and fairness abound, as do the political, economic, and sociological implications of various forms of legal authority and enforcement. Oxford Reference offers expert-level encyclopedic coverage on all aspects of law, including legal history, philosophy, and theory. It also includes references to major judicial rulings and to scholarly works on specific areas of law, such as family law, tax law, labor law, and international law. This is a valuable resource for attorneys and anyone else who needs to understand the legal system.