What Is Law?

Law is a set of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate. Societal viewpoints tend to focus on promoting order, morality, fairness, and rationality. Judicial viewpoints reflect the idea that a legal system is an arbiter of disputes and can protect individual rights.

Governmental laws can be enacted by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, generating decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent, resulting in case law. Private individuals may also create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation. The precise boundaries of a jurisdiction’s law are defined by its constitution or tacit traditions, allowing the legal systems of different countries to differ significantly.

In the United States, for example, a common law system was developed that relies on judicial decisions made in cases that come before them. These decisions are then compiled to form case law. Other countries, like Japan, have a civil law tradition based on codes that explicitly specify the rules judges must follow in making their decisions.

The Law encompasses a broad range of areas, from contracts to property law to medical jurisprudence. Its many branches influence every aspect of society, from relationships and governance to commerce and trade.

A law can be interpreted in many different ways, and different interpretations often lead to different outcomes. However, when a law is interpreted in a way that is deemed to be unconstitutional or otherwise violates a person’s rights, it can be contested in a court of law, where the judge makes a ruling based on what he or she believes is the correct application of the law.

Legal studies are a popular major for students, and careers in law are highly sought after by young people. Law is a complex area of study that spans several fields, and its many different applications make it a fascinating topic.

Oxford Reference offers comprehensive coverage of this broad discipline, from the most widely used terms and concepts to the most advanced ideas in law. Our legal dictionaries and encyclopedias are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. They cover the core areas of law — such as constitutional law, criminal law, family law, property law, and tax law — along with more specialized fields, including medical jurisprudence and legal philosophy. These authoritative sources provide reliable, up-to-date coverage of the laws that govern us.