What is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways, with important implications for a wide range of issues.

Some laws are designed to protect specific groups of people, such as children or drivers. Others are based on ideas of morality or justice, such as the laws against murder and theft. Laws are also based on natural processes, for example the laws of gravity or the law of thermodynamics. A number of special fields of law exist, including criminal, family, employment and property law, as well as international law and the law of war.

A large part of the law is made up of rules and codes that govern individual behaviour. These may be created by a group legislature, producing statutes; by executive decrees or regulations, resulting in delegated acts (sometimes called administrative law); or by the courts, producing case law and legal precedent (common in common law jurisdictions). Individuals can also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

The main purpose of the law is to ensure that all members of a community are treated equally and fairly, regardless of their social status or wealth. It is essential to democracy that core human rights and procedural principles are enshrined in the law, and that government power is subject to effective checks and balances. This is why the framers of the US Constitution separated legislative, executive and judicial powers within the federal government.

A major area of debate concerns the extent to which a government’s power can be limited, and the nature of the checks and balances that should be in place. For example, can a government extend its control over people’s lives without violating their liberty, and without being unnecessarily intrusive? This question is at the heart of a constitutional republic.

The law is complex, and its study involves considering a wide range of issues and topics. It is also a very diverse field, with some areas of the law more specialised than others. For instance, immigration and nationality law deals with the rights of people to live and work in a country that is not their own, while family law covers marriage and divorce proceedings. Other areas of the law, such as contract and commercial law, deal with transactions and money, whilst biolaw examines the intersection of the law with the life sciences. These articles, from across the Oxford Reference collection, provide an overview of the breadth and depth of the law. They aim to inform and engage students with the key concepts, issues and debates that are central to the discipline. In doing so they help to develop students’ critical thinking skills and appreciation of the complexities of the law.