What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that governs the behavior and rights of people in a community. The word is often used to mean the system of laws that applies to a nation or state, but it may also refer to local customs and practices. Laws are enforced by the government and provide a framework for society. They establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect liberty and property. Law is important to a society because it ensures that everyone is treated fairly and that those who break the rules are punished.

There are a variety of views on what law is, and different definitions apply to different legal systems. The most commonly accepted view is that the law is a set of rules created by the state that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society and are enforced by the state, with sanctions imposed if they are broken or breached.

Other views of what the law is include that it consists of written statutes and judicial decisions, or that it reflects unwritten principles, analogies, or statements by judges or higher courts. Under the “doctrine of precedent” or stare decisis, decisions by higher courts are binding on lower ones. Others, such as utilitarian lawyer Jeremy Bentham, argue that the purpose of law is to serve the interests of the majority and that it should be guided by morality. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the law is derived from natural, unchanging laws of nature and man.

The major branches of law are criminal, civil, family, and administrative. Civil law deals with private affairs of individuals, such as contracts, torts, and defamation of character. Criminal law imposes punishment on those who commit crimes against the community, such as murder or terrorism. Administrative law encompasses the functions of government, such as taxation and national security.

The law is a complex subject, and there are many books on it. Some of the most useful are the multivolume Oxford Encyclopedia of Law, which provides concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries on all the major areas of law, along with a chronology and list of further reading. Other useful books are the Oxford Handbook of Law and Society, the Oxford Dictionary of Law, and The Law in Context.