What Is Law?

Law is the system of rules that a particular community recognizes as regulating people’s actions, and that are enforced through a controlling authority. It shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people. Law can be state-enforced and created by a collective legislature, resulting in statutes, by decrees from the executive, resulting in regulations, or established by judges through precedent (called stare decisis), which is used to ensure consistency of court decisions in common law countries. It may also be privately-enforced, resulting in contracts between private parties. Law is a complex area, and its study encompasses numerous subjects:

The four principal purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. In some societies, law serves one or more of these goals better than others: for example, a democratic government may keep the peace and maintain social stability, but it may oppress minorities or limit the freedom of political opponents; while an authoritarian state may do all of the above, but it will likely be unable to sustain a democracy or protect its citizens from its own military and police forces.

Some legal systems are more centralized than others: for instance, the U.S. employs a common law system, where laws are derived from judicial rulings rather than from legislative statutes. Other countries, such as Japan, have a civil law system, where the law is codified in written codes.

The nature of law makes it distinct from other fields of study: it is normative, not descriptive or causal. Thus, a law does not tell people what must happen; it merely defines certain rules that they have to abide by. Hans Kelsen proposed the ‘pure theory of law’, which states that law is a ‘normative science’.

Law can be found in every aspect of life: labour law is the study of a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, involving regulations such as collective bargaining and the right to strike; criminal and civil procedure are the sets of rules that courts must follow as trials and appeals proceed; property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible goods such as land or buildings; and biolaw investigates the intersection of law with the life sciences.

There are also various specialisms within law: for example, criminal law deals with the rights and wrongs of the accused; family law is concerned with marriage and divorce proceedings; and transactions law involves business and money. Law also includes the academic discipline of jurisprudence, which studies the philosophy and methodology of the law and how it has developed over time. Law scholars are often referred to as “jurists”. In some countries, this is shortened to just “lawyers”, while in others, the term is extended to include barristers and professors of law. Law is also an important subject for research and is studied at universities around the world. The Oxford Dictionary of Law has more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline.