The Basics of Law

Law is the system of rules and regulations that a particular country or community recognizes as binding upon its members. It is enforced through a controlling authority and often involves punishments. It varies widely between countries. The main purposes of the law are to set standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberties and rights. However, some legal systems serve these purposes better than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep the peace but also oppress minorities and limit dissent.

Different types of law include criminal and civil law. Civil law deals with disputes between individuals, for example over property, contracts or torts. Tort laws help people claim compensation when they are hurt or their property damaged, for example in an automobile accident or defamation of character. Criminal law, on the other hand, aims to prevent crime by punishing those who break the law.

Historically, most legal systems have been influenced by religion or culture. Religious laws, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, are explicitly based on religious precepts. Most religious jurisdictions then rely on further human elaboration and interpretation to provide thorough and detailed legal systems. This entails the use of methods such as Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.

Other types of law include administrative, labour, family and international law. Administrative law is the study of government processes, including agencies and corporations. Labour law concerns the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade unions and includes collective bargaining regulation. Family law covers issues such as divorce proceedings and children’s rights. International law covers the ways in which countries can interact with each other, for example in areas of trade and the environment, or militarily.

The earliest theories of the law were derived from experience and practical considerations. John Austin, a proponent of utilitarian theory, stated that the law is “commands, backed by force of sanctions from a sovereign to whom men have a habit of obedience.” The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that the law should reflect natural laws of morality and be unchanging.

The study of the law is a vast subject and encompasses many disciplines. Its practitioners include lawyers, judges and other members of the judiciary. A career in law can be challenging, exciting and rewarding. It is vital to our daily lives, both as it relates to defending our rights and securing justice. Oxford Reference offers expert-level coverage of the concepts, practices and processes that are at the heart of this fascinating subject. Our collection of over 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries spans legal terms, from family and employment law to international law, taxation and human rights, all written by trusted experts for researchers at every level.