What is Law?

Law is a set of rules that society or a government develops in order to deal with crime, business agreements and social relationships. It is enforced by the state and, if broken, sanctions can be imposed. Law has many definitions, largely because different legal systems have a different understanding of it.

Some countries use a common law system, which relies on judges’ decisions in a case by case basis. Others, such as Japan, have a civil law system that relies on statutes or codes of laws.

The study of law covers a huge range of issues and topics, from the philosophy of law to the history of legal system. The most important branch of the law is criminal law, which deals with crimes and their punishments. Other areas of the law include family law, which deals with marriage and divorce proceedings, and property law, which covers people’s rights to their possessions, from houses to bank accounts. Environmental law focuses on regulations to protect the environment, while aviation law covers all rules and standards governing the operation of aircraft, both at home and abroad.

A number of philosophers have offered definitions of law. One definition, offered by Roscoe Pound, considers the law to be a means of social control. He notes that “The true law, by its nature, is coercive” and asks whether core human and procedural rights are enshrined in the law, and if the law is accessible to all members of the community regardless of their status or wealth.

Another definition, offered by Holmes, takes a scientific approach to the concept of law. He writes that “Law is the sum total of all the rules that bad men expect to have enforced against them. This explains why they behave as they do.”

For more on the philosophy of law, see the articles on censorship; crime and punishment; and war, the law of. For an exposition of the legal aspects of war and the military, see the articles on military and the law; and armed forces and the law.

For a comprehensive guide to all of the major terms, concepts and debates in law, Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and specialist encyclopedic entries on this vast subject area. Entries are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, complemented by charts and chronologies where appropriate. The site also contains a large archive of primary sources in law, including legislation and treaties, and the full text of legal journals and monographs. It is an essential tool for legal professionals, students and researchers. It is available online and on a subscription basis for academic, corporate and public libraries worldwide. This article is part of our Law Collection. Oxford Reference also has collections on Business Law, Law of the Sea and Biolaw.

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