What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that controls human behaviour in a society. It governs the relationships between individuals and between groups or individuals, sets out rights and duties, and provides a framework for orderly social change. A legal system can be based on either natural or moral principles, or it can follow a particular set of rules that is established by a state. The emergence of new technologies such as the internet is also having an impact on law and ethics.

The term “law” is often used to refer to a specific profession, such as a lawyer or judge. However, the law as a concept is much broader. It includes all those rules which are imposed by a sovereign on its subjects, whether these are explicit or implicit. For example, driving laws impose a duty to drive safely, but the law may not explicitly state what the penalties are for breaking this rule.

In a nation, the role of law is to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and provide a platform for orderly social change. Some systems of law serve these purposes more successfully than others. For example, an authoritarian government might keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it might also oppress minorities or political opponents. A democratic government, on the other hand, might be more concerned with protecting individual rights and promoting social justice than maintaining the status quo.

A number of philosophers have contributed to the development of the theory of law. John Austin’s utilitarian definition, which defines law as commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience, was influential for some time. Other theorists, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that law reflects innate and unchangeable laws of nature. This philosophy of law became a significant part of the European intellectual tradition, and it was reshaped by Max Weber and others in modern times.

The study of law encompasses a wide range of disciplines, from criminal and family law to public policy and legal history. In addition, there are specialist fields such as labour law, which involves the regulation of a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and evidence law, which concerns which materials can be admitted in court to build a case.

Oxford Reference offers expert-written, trusted content on all the major subjects of law, covering the key terms, concepts, processes and institutions of legal systems around the world. It also covers the most significant debates in legal theory. It is the most comprehensive resource available on this broad subject area. The articles are concise, and many have graphs, tables and charts to help you understand the key points. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order to make finding what you need easy. Our coverage of law includes both constitutional and administrative law, and the articles will support you in preparing for exams, drafting legal documents, or simply researching the law for a school project.