What is Law?

The law is the system of rules that a community recognizes as regulating its actions, and is enforced by the state or other authority through sanctions. It is a broad field that includes not only formal legal texts, but also the custom and policy that has been accumulated through centuries and that is now codified, a practice known as common law. In addition, there are the principles that underlie law, and the philosophies and theories about them. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this extensive area of study.

The precise nature of law is an ongoing and complex debate. One of the key issues is whether it consists simply of commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which people have a habit of obedience. Or does it reflect a moral and unchanging order that is innate in human nature, as argued by utilitarian philosophers like Bentham, and natural lawyers such as Rousseau?

Some societies, particularly the United States and some European countries, have a common law system, which means that laws are derived from judicial decisions rather than legislative statutes. This system relies on the “doctrine of precedent”, which means that decisions made by higher courts bind lower courts to ensure consistency in their rulings. In a common law system, it is therefore often difficult to determine precisely what the law is on a particular matter; judges must carefully examine all precedents, extract the principle, analogies and reasoning and then apply that to their case at hand.

In contrast, countries with a civil law system have laws that are written and codified, and which provide a clear framework for what is permissible or not. Nevertheless, in most areas of law it is still necessary to consider the precedent and reasoning, since even formal legal texts may be subject to interpretation.

Law also covers a wide range of subjects, from the rights people have over their own work, for example copyright law; to the laws governing companies and the money they invest (trust law). It includes the laws that protect inventions, such as patent law; and the laws that help people claim compensation when someone hurts them or their property, such as tort law. For further information, see the articles on censorship; criminal law; and family law.

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