What is Law?

Law is a set of rules created by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior and is enforced by sanctions when it is broken. Its precise definition has been a subject of longstanding debate. It has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice.

Law, as a social institution, serves to satisfy certain social wants and needs, including security, equality and fairness. The specific nature of these social wants and needs differ from society to society, but they often include things such as ensuring that all citizens are treated fairly, protecting the environment, or guaranteeing personal freedoms. Laws can also be created to provide incentives for certain behaviors, such as imposing fines for littering or encouraging people to drive safely.

Ultimately, the aim of any law is to keep the peace in society. Despite the best efforts of society, disputes will arise and conflict is inevitable. However, a conflict between two people may result in one party being harmed or injured, and in order to prevent such harm, the law provides a way of resolving those disputes peacefully through legal channels. Law can also be used to punish those who commit crimes, whether they are criminals, terrorists or fraudsters.

In addition to laws that govern criminal activities, there are many fields of law – some more specialised than others – that deal with other aspects of life in society. These include banking law, financial regulation and insurance, business law, labour law, property law (including land law and intellectual property), family law, tort law, and public and administrative law.

A basic principle that should be enshrined in every law is the Rule of Law, which states that all entities, both government and private, must be accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated. This requires that core human rights, freedoms and civil liberties are protected, that power is separated between executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state, that there is transparency in government, and that law is clear and accessible to everyone.

Oxford Reference offers over 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across the full spectrum of law and its related disciplines. From the study of law and society to legal history, and from comparative law to legal education and professional practice, Oxford Reference has something for all users of law. Our articles are written by trusted experts and designed to be useful at both the research and classroom levels. The articles are available in PDF format for free and can be accessed using our mobile app, Oxford Reference Online. For more detailed information on any topic, please visit our website.