What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules enforceable by a sovereign authority to govern the behaviour of a particular people or place. Its precise nature has been the subject of long debate, but generally it includes a set of binding obligations, standards and penalties. These may be imposed for the purpose of establishing order and stability, resolving disputes, or protecting liberties and rights. It can be created by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges in common law jurisdictions through precedent. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts.

There are many different forms of law, from the largely ceremonial and symbolic legal traditions of Asia to the complex constitutions and laws of the major European powers. The study of law has been influenced by a variety of social, political and economic factors. The development of the modern state has been a fundamental factor in determining the nature and scope of law, as has the evolution of philosophies on the proper role of the law in society.

As a result of the complexities involved, law is often discussed in specialised terms and contexts. For example, the phrase “rule of law” describes the idea that all members of a society are considered to be equal subjects of publicly disclosed and enforced laws. This contrasts with the idea of “rule of force”, wherein a sovereign considers itself above the laws of any of its citizens.

A key concept in law is that it must be predictable. This is because law requires people to make decisions, and those decisions must be informed by an understanding of what the consequences of those actions will be. If law is not predictable, then people cannot plan ahead or coordinate their activities over time. Moreover, if the law changes constantly, it can be difficult for people to know what the latest law is.

In addition to predictability, law should be objective and equitable. This means that it should be based on principles that are independent of the interests and beliefs of particular groups. The principle of equity is reflected in the concept of natural justice, which emphasizes fair treatment of all persons. It is a key element of the rule of law, which protects against anarchy and the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Law has a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of most people. It shapes politics, economy and history. It also mediates the relationships between people. For example, tort law provides compensation when an individual or their property is harmed by another person’s conduct, while criminal law deals with offences against the state itself. Similarly, civil procedure concerns the rules that courts must follow as they conduct a trial or hearing, and evidence law relates to which materials are admissible in court cases. All these fields require the use of specialised terminology and vocabulary. Oxford Reference offers expert-authored, concise definitions and specialist encyclopedic entries covering these areas of law.