What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules that is created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. Laws are often based on a concept of natural justice or the will of a deity. They may also be based on the principle that an activity has certain predictable consequences under particular conditions. Laws can be written or unwritten, and they can include regulations and policies, customary practices, judicial decisions, treatises, and statutes. Laws can be enforceable by military or civilian force.

The principal functions of law are to keep the peace and maintain the status quo, protect individual rights, punish criminals, and provide for orderly social change. Some legal systems better serve these purposes than others. For example, a tyrannical government can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it will often oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a democratic government imposes peace and protects individuals, but it cannot provide as much security or stability as an authoritarian government.

In common law countries, judicial decisions are recognized as “law” on an equal footing with legislative statutes. This is referred to as the doctrine of stare decisis. In addition, higher courts have binding authority over lower court decisions.

Oxford Reference offers a comprehensive collection of authoritative and accessible content on this broad subject area, covering everything from criminal, tax, and employment law to major debates in legal theory. It is designed to be used by researchers at all levels of expertise, including students, academics, and general readers.