Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate, and it has been variously described as a science and as the art of justice. Law is often seen as a tool for controlling society, with its four principal purposes being establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights.
Legal systems vary, with some based on the rule of law and others using tradition or custom. In a rule of law system, laws are clear, publicly known, and stable. They protect human rights and property and assure a fair justice system. They also guarantee equality and due process of law.
In a system of traditional law, judges rely on precedent to determine the law in particular cases. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis (Latin for “to stand by decisions”) and allows earlier cases with facts and law similar to a case at hand to govern the outcome of the current one.
For example, if a judge in one state or country decides a case involving a specific set of facts, the decision will normally apply in a subsequent case in that jurisdiction. However, in some states or countries, the laws are not standardized and different decisions by judges can have different results.
A system of laws can be based on ancient or modern texts, including statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions. In the United States, for example, laws are consolidated in the United States Code, a compilation of most public laws currently in effect.
The study of law encompasses a wide range of topics, from the basic structure of a particular legal system to the evolution and development of a specific case or statute. It also includes discussions of the philosophy behind a particular system of law and how it compares to other systems of law, and it may include analysis of specific types of laws, such as criminal, civil, property, family, employment, or constitutional law.
There are a number of professions involved in the field of law, from private lawyers to judges and court clerks to prosecutor and defense attorneys. There are also specialties within the field, such as bankruptcy or labor law, and the practice of law is regulated by the bar associations in most states.
Law is an important area of study for anyone interested in government, politics, the economy, and culture. Oxford Reference offers authoritative, expert-level coverage of the terms, concepts, processes, and organization of laws around the world. Our expert-written articles cover all the major issues in law, from criminal and civil rights to taxation and social security to international and family law. Our content is written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, and is complemented by charts, tables, and chronologies when appropriate. Our coverage of law is extensive and reliable, and it will help you get the information you need quickly and effectively.