What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules that a society develops to deal with crime, business agreements, and social relationships. It is the body of rules enforced by a controlling authority, whether it be a government or a court. The term can also refer to a particular branch of law, such as criminal law or family law.

The concept of law is fundamental to a democratic state. It defines the limits of power by regulating a society’s activities and ensuring that no one can abuse their power over others. The law is also an essential tool for ensuring the rights of all citizens, including the protection of their property, health, liberty and reputation.

There are many different branches of law, covering a variety of aspects of human activity. Contract law, for example, regulates the exchange of goods and services; banking law defines minimum capital standards for banks; taxation law determines how much people must pay in taxes; and evidence law decides what materials are admissible in courts for cases to be built.

Other areas of the law are more directly political or moral. For example, the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia are explicitly based on religious precepts. Christianity also has a set of canon laws that persist in some church communities. In addition, philosophers have debated the extent to which law incorporates morality. John Austin’s utilitarian theories were popular, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that there are innate moral principles governing human behaviour, which reflect natural justice and the will of God.

In modern life, the extension of government power over more and more of society has presented challenges that writers such as Locke and Montesquieu could not have imagined. Max Weber reshaped thinking on this topic by suggesting that the law is not simply a form of coercive force, but that it is an instrument for promoting individual freedom.

Oxford Reference provides comprehensive coverage of law at all levels, from concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries to specialist guides and online resources. Our expert-written articles will help you find what you need quickly, with clear charts and illustrations to support your research. We cover all major legal systems, as well as major debates in legal theory. In addition to criminal and civil law, our subject areas include international, family and labour law.