An Encyclopaedia of Law


Law is the set of rules that a community or society creates and enforces to regulate human behavior. It has many functions, four of which are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law is a complex subject, and there are many different views about what it is or should be. Some of these views are reflected in the various schools of legal thought. For example, natural-law theorists emphasize that individuals have certain “natural” or “unalienable” rights that government cannot legitimately take away. Other legal theories, such as positive law, stress that a rule is effective only because it has been commanded by a sovereign, the political power that those governed agree to obey.

In general, laws can be made by a legislature, which is a group of elected representatives, such as a senate and house of representatives for each state; by the executive branch, through decrees and regulations; or by judges, under the principle of stare decisis, in common law systems. Individuals may also make legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that provide alternative ways to resolve disputes other than through standard court litigation. In addition to domestic laws, there are international laws, which are negotiated and concluded by national governments in treaties or what is known as customary law (judicial decisions that have become accepted practice in a particular jurisdiction).

The study of Law encompasses the rules of civil and criminal justice, the principles of corporate and business organization, the structure and process of courts, and the relationship between Law and the other social sciences. The law also shapes politics, economics, history and society in many other ways. For a more focused exploration of a specific area of Law, see the following articles:

Legal articles should be clear and concise. Legal jargon should be avoided when possible, as it tends to confuse readers and can obscure the main points of an argument. Articles should be written to a wide audience, including laypeople, so that they are understandable and accessible. A useful test is to read an article out loud to a non-lawyer, to see whether it makes sense.

The Law is a vast area of study, and it is impossible to cover every topic in a brief encyclopedia entry. For more in-depth coverage, see the Oxford Reference entry on Law. Also see the entries on individual types of law, such as contract law; family law; inheritance law; labor law; maritime law; medical jurisprudence; property law; and tort law. For an overview of the history of the law, see History of the Law.