What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules and policies that are recognized by a community as regulating the behavior of its members. Laws may be written or unwritten, and can be based on natural law or on custom and practice. Law may be a tool of social control or may serve other goals such as promoting justice or protecting individuals’ rights. The precise nature of law is a subject of longstanding debate and has been described as a science or as the art of justice.

The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in a variety of ways. Its influence extends from individual relationships to international disputes. The law is not merely a collection of regulations, but also serves as a mediator between people’s relations and can even affect the environment. The laws of different cultures vary greatly. For example, Islamic law is based on the Koran and is interpreted in accordance with Muslim tradition. In contrast, British law has a mixture of old and new. Some of the older traditions are retained in the coroners’ courts, but the use of modern technology is rapidly gaining ground.

In many legal systems, decisions made by judges are recognized as law. This is known as the “doctrine of precedent”. In common law countries, judicial decisions are on an equal footing with statutes adopted through the legislative process and with regulations issued by the executive branch. Lawyers and jurists play a vital role in the development of the law by explaining the reasoning behind a decision and by establishing a body of case law that can be used to decide future cases. The “doctrine of precedent” means that a court’s decision in one case will determine the outcome in similar future cases. This is in contrast to civil law systems, where the statutes and regulations are more important than the case law.

The laws of a country must be clear and accessible to all citizens. They must be based on principles of equality and fairness, not on personal prejudices or economic interests. It is also important that checks on government power exist, including a free press and independent judiciary. Ultimately, the law must serve the purposes of society, and its coercive nature must be respected.

Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries covering the entire field of law. This coverage includes the major terms, concepts and processes in law and its history, as well as important debates in legal theory. Entries are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level and include charts where appropriate. Topics range from criminal and family law to taxation and the organization of legal systems. In addition, there are entries on specific legal fields such as the law of nations and international law. The law is a complex and dynamic discipline, and its study requires a combination of legal expertise, broad knowledge of the world’s political and social structure, and an ability to understand the interplay between the various parts of a legal system.