What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules created by a community that are recognized as binding and enforced by a controlling authority. These laws ensure a peaceful society and punish those who break them. Laws may differ from cultural norms by virtue of their enforceable status, but they are still based on them. Legal systems may have different processes by which these laws are formulated and promulgated, but they all display a tendency toward formalization. This phenomenon has been called “law’s juridification,” and the process is likely to accelerate in the future as more people become part of the legal system.

The term “law” is derived from the Latin word legis, meaning “advice.” The most basic definition of law is an order or directive given by some superior power. It may be enforced through social coercion or by threatening violence. However, a more specific and contemporary definition is a set of guidelines and precepts that regulate human conduct by providing guidance for resolving disputes and maintaining social order. It also protects the liberties and rights of its subjects.

According to Roscoe Pound, “law is the specialized system of rules which regulates human conduct and preserves order.” Its purpose is not limited to maintaining social stability or protecting liberty and property; it also serves as a means of control over the citizenry by ensuring conformity to moral standards, providing economic incentives and discouraging social rebellion. Its coercive nature is reflected in the fact that it often violates the individual’s natural freedoms and interests.

The development of laws is a complex process. It requires the involvement of a number of factors, such as the need to protect property and the right to free speech; the influence of other cultures on lawmaking; and the changing societal demands that affect the way in which laws are formulated.

A major change in the development of law occurred during the 16th century, triggered by dramatic social upheavals such as religious division and the Thirty Years’ War. This period marked a shift from law based on religion and custom to one that is primarily influenced by politics, particularly the emergence of a sovereign power with exclusive access to the levers of justice and security.

Law encompasses a wide variety of areas, from contract law, which defines the obligations of parties to a business transaction, to criminal law, which covers everything from burglary to murder. Other areas include labor law, which regulates the relationship between workers and employers; evidence law, which deals with what materials can be used in a court case; and procedural law, which establishes how a court will conduct its business. All of these areas are covered in the Oxford Reference Encyclopedia of Law, which provides concise, specialist encyclopedic entries on the legal field written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Law also offers a range of supplementary resources, including a comprehensive law dictionary and charts on the structure of legal systems around the world.