The Basics of Law

Law is a system of rules regulating human conduct and governing the actions of individuals and communities. It influences politics, economics, history and society in numerous ways. This wide and varied discipline covers such topics as contracts, torts, property rights, employment, criminal justice, the environment and international relations. Its complexity and the range of its application mean that legal systems vary considerably from country to country.

The main functions of law are to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and provide for peaceful social change. Whether these are effectively served depends upon who holds the power to make and enforce laws. Authoritarian governments may serve these purposes well, but they tend to oppress dissent and are prone to corruption. The opposite is true of democratic nations, which are more likely to promote the interests and aspirations of their citizens.

In a democracy, the people are sovereign, which means that they have the power to create and change laws. However, they also must be able to trust that their elected representatives and officials are upholding the law. The ability to do so is a prerequisite for a just society.

While the concept of law is broad and varied, it is generally understood to be a set of rules governing human conduct that are sanctioned by conscience or based on concepts of natural justice or the will of a deity: a moral law.

Another definition of law is a body of unwritten laws established by judicial precedents, which provides a basis for the evaluation and interpretation of new cases. This is known as common law, and it draws on institutionalized opinions and interpretations of judicial authorities and public juries to establish a jurisprudence that can guide the development of new legislation.

Contract law, for example, outlines the exchange of products and services between entities, while property law regulates possession condition and rights. Employment law covers the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union, while criminal law and civil procedure concern a citizen’s right to a fair trial or hearing. Evidence law defines which materials are admissible in courts for a case to be built.

The study of law is referred to as jurisprudence, and it has many sub-disciplines such as civil law, criminal law and constitutional law. The field is highly diverse and has a profound impact on everyday life. For instance, the legal profession is a vital component of our economic infrastructure and is a key contributor to the economic success of modern societies. For these reasons, a thorough understanding of law is essential to those working within it. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering the law at all levels, from the general principles of a legal system to its specific application. The collection also includes extensive references to important legal theories, debates and disputes. It is an essential resource for students and researchers in this broad and fascinating area of study.