What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by the state which form a framework to ensure a peaceful society and which can be enforced if they are broken. It is a complex subject, and the precise definition is the source of much debate. However, most definitions of law include a combination of the following elements:

A legal system defines the rights and obligations of its members and regulates the activities of the state. This includes establishing, amending or dissolving government agencies, creating enforceable contracts, setting the punishment for crimes and enforcing property rights. Law can be based on a constitution, statutes and judicial decisions or created through social agreement or custom. Laws can cover all aspects of human conduct, including property, family and criminal matters as well as international affairs and military activity.

The most common method of making laws is through the legislature, resulting in statutes; this is known as legislation. The legislature may also make laws by decree or regulation, such as a trade agreement or military code. It can also create a private law that applies to individuals, for example an arbitration agreement or contract. Whether private or public, laws are enforceable by a state and can be enforced by its courts.

A key aspect of the law is that it changes over time. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories and intuitions of public policy – avowed or unconscious – have all had more to do with the evolution of law than logic alone. This is why a law student will find that judging decisions rarely contain the bright-line rules of syllogism which might be expected from an academic text on the law.

As a result, the study of law is highly interdisciplinary and is influenced by such subjects as philosophy, ethics, politics and economics. The varying perspectives on the nature of the law reflect the broader social and cultural concerns that underlie the development of legal systems and the role of law in society.

The field of law covers all professions that deal with advising people about the law, representing them in court or giving decisions and punishments. It can be a challenging career, and one that is becoming increasingly attractive to young people. This is due, in part, to the increasing focus on social justice and a desire by many young people to help improve the world around them. The study of law encompasses all the laws, systems and procedures that govern a country or community, and this broad definition also includes major debates in legal theory. The Oxford Law Encyclopedia offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on the law, including legal systems, legal terms and concepts, and major debates in law and ethics. These are complemented by charts and chronologies, wherever appropriate. Our comprehensive coverage of the law spans global legal systems and includes all types of legal materials, from criminal to corporate and from the judicial branch to the legislative.