What is Law?


Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It is also a field of study, with its own vocabulary and disciplines. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline, covering everything from criminal, tax and social security law to family, employment and international law.

Law influences politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It can be seen as a mediator of relationships between people and the way that government, businesses and private individuals interact. The law can serve many purposes: to keep the peace, maintain the status quo, protect minorities against majorities, promote social justice and provide orderly transition of power between regimes. However, some legal systems are more effective at serving these goals than others.

A law can be created and enforced in a number of ways: by a legislative body, resulting in statutes; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, particularly in common law jurisdictions. There are also private laws that are binding on certain parties to a contract or other agreement, such as arbitration agreements.

The precise definition of a law is subject to debate, and the term is used in different contexts. For example, some laws are formulated as scientific principles, such as the law of gravity, which is defined by a mathematical equation: Fg = m1 / m2 * G / d, where m1, m2, and d are the masses of two objects, their distance apart, and a factor representing gravitational acceleration. Other laws are formulated by human societies, and include religious precepts such as the Jewish Halakhah or Islamic Sharia, as well as Christian canon law.

The law may be created and enforced by a variety of bodies and institutions, including the government, businesses, and other associations. It can be regulated by these entities, as is the case with banking and financial regulation, which sets minimum standards for banks to meet, and rules about best practice in investments. The law may also be created and enforced by individuals, as is the case with contracts. The law is often shaped by cultural values and customs, as well as by the values and ideas of individual judges and lawyers. The word ‘law’ can also be used to describe the ethos of a profession or organisation, such as the etiquette of the British legal system, which places a premium on discretion and propriety, or the code of conduct of the Royal Air Force. It can also be used to refer to a specific act, such as the law of obscene and threatening telephone calls. Or it can be used as a title, such as Esquire or Doctor of Law, to indicate an educated and respected lawyer.