What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules a nation or society creates to regulate behaviour, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. The term is often used in reference to particular branches of the field, such as criminal law or business law.

The main purposes of law are regulating behavior, maintaining order, resolving conflicts and promoting social change. Laws may be based on tradition or custom (common law), precedent and case law, or statutes and codes created by legislatures. The rules of the field may also vary according to whether they are meant to govern a legal decision (rules of decision) or a process of lawmaking and administration (rules of conduct).

In general, laws are designed to prevent conflict by establishing standards and providing sanctioning mechanisms. These mechanisms typically include coercion, such as physical force or economic penalties. The nature of the norms that are sanctioned distinguishes law from other forms of social behavioral regulation, such as morals and customs, which are generally not enforceable by a legal authority.

While a legal system’s effectiveness in serving its various functions may differ, there are many common features. Laws, for example, usually aim to provide fairness and consistency in the application of the rules, and they must be accessible to all members of a society. In the absence of such a system, society is left with disorder and unpredictability.

The study of law is a rich and diverse one, with a broad range of topics encompassing all aspects of the human experience. Law is therefore a key subject in many fields, including politics, philosophy, sociology, history and philosophy of science. It is also a central part of the curriculum in education, where it is taught at all levels.

A good starting point for research into the subject is to identify a topic that inspires intellectual curiosity and scholarly contribution. Choose a topic that promises a deep exploration and genuinely enthuses you – this enthusiasm will fuel the comprehensive analysis and persuasive arguments that define a high-quality piece of research.

Once you have a topic in mind, it is important to understand the wider context of the field before making a start. The complexities of law can be overwhelming, so it is crucial to seek out expert opinion to help you make sense of the field and its terminology.

Oxford Reference provides authoritative and up-to-date coverage of the key subjects, terms and concepts across this vast discipline. It covers everything from criminal and civil law, to taxation and social security law, and from family and labour law to international law and major debates in legal theory. Its specialist encyclopedic entries are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. Each entry is concise, accessible and clearly structured, with examples and charts wherever possible. Throughout, it includes cross-references to related articles and is complemented by a full bibliography. This is the ideal resource for anyone studying law at any level.