What Is Law?

Law is the discipline and profession concerned with the rules a community recognizes as binding on its members. These rules may be written and enforced by a sovereign authority, the government of a country, or even a group of people organized into an unincorporated community.

Regardless of the source, laws must be clear and enforceable. They can be imposed by a legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch of government through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent (the latter being the case for common law jurisdictions). Private individuals can create legally binding contracts.

Each legal system has its own peculiarities. The system of law in one nation-state may differ significantly from that in another, as will the political culture, history and traditions that form its backdrop. For example, some nations were colonized and influenced by Western European legal tradition; others, like India, Malaysia and Indonesia, have evolved a unique East Asian legal system based on a mix of secular and religious influences.

While the precise definition of law is subject to debate, all legal systems share some key features. They include:

The principle of equal protection of the law is a fundamental principle in all systems of law and is a central element of democratic constitutions, which aim for a balanced distribution of power between the state and its citizens. This is also a central theme of the civil rights movement, which has fought for many decades to ensure that laws and policies do not discriminate against minority groups.

A major issue in law concerns the extent to which it should incorporate morality. John Austin’s utilitarian answer to this was that laws are “commands, backed by the threat of sanction, from a sovereign to men, as his political subjects.” Others, including Jeremy Bentham and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took a more naturalistic approach, believing that laws should reflect underlying, immutable moral principles.

Law encompasses a broad array of areas, ranging from criminal law to contract law and from property law to corporate and commercial law. The law of contracts regulates agreements that exchange goods or services; tort law covers wrongful acts; employment law deals with worker rights, such as the right to unionize and to strike; copyright law covers the regulation of intellectual property; and law of evidence includes the rules that courts must follow in a trial.

The law is constantly evolving, and it is a complex and challenging field to study. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States has made a number of important decisions that have changed the legal landscape for all Americans and other citizens around the world. This new reality makes understanding the basics of the law essential for anyone interested in public affairs. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Law provides concise definitions and detailed, scholarly entries on all major aspects of this diverse subject. Our law entries, written by experts in the field, cover the major concepts and processes of law and lawmaking, and they address the major debates in legal theory.