What Is Law?


A system of rules that a place or community recognizes as regulating its members’ behavior, often enforced through penalties. It includes both the commandments that a government imposes on its citizens, and the custom and policies that have been recognized by courts as laws. It also encompasses the doctrine of legality, a philosophy that explains whether a given course of action is lawful or not.

Law has a broad definition, including rules that govern business, crime, family, and even social change. A country’s law system can be influenced by its culture and history, such as a tradition of oral law, or by the nature of its economy. It can also be shaped by the way in which the state distributes its resources and by its political system.

For example, a nation that relies on a monarchy might be inclined to treat its subjects as equals and avoid oppressing minorities. This can be contrasted with a nation that has adopted a republican form of government, wherein its citizens enjoy freedoms and rights such as free speech and religious practice.

Some philosophers believe that the concept of law is inherently linked to coercion, as it involves a threat of punishment or force from a superior power. Others, such as Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarians, see the idea of law as “commandments, backed by force, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Still others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argue that morality should be included in the concept of law, because it is derived from an innate sense of justice and unchanging natural processes.

The term law can also refer to a specific area of the law, such as labour law, which deals with the tripartite industrial relationship between employer, worker, and trade union. It covers matters such as workplace safety, wage disputes, and the right to strike.

Other branches of law include commercial law, which covers business transactions and contracts; constitutional law, which relates to the important rights of the people and their relationship with the government; and criminal law, which includes things such as homicide and robbery. Finally, the field of medical jurisprudence is concerned with a country’s medical laws and regulations.

Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this vast area of study. Whether you are looking for an entry on criminal law, taxation, or the major debates in legal theory, this dictionary is the perfect tool to help you understand the law and its importance to our lives.