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Understanding the Basics of Law


Law is a vast discipline, covering all aspects of the systems that govern human behavior. Oxford Reference provides concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries that explain the major terms, concepts and processes of this broad field, from criminal law and civil justice to international law, family law and major debates in legal theory. Written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, this authoritative resource helps users find the answers they need quickly and easily.

The primary functions of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. Different societies fulfill these functions in different ways, as reflected in the wide range of political-legal structures that exist throughout the world. For example, the power to enforce laws is typically concentrated in nation-states with powerful military and bureaucratic powers that can command popular support and enforce their will. In many countries, these powers are exercised through democratic means, but in others they may be used by dictators or autocrats to suppress dissent and to oppress certain groups.

A common feature of legal systems is a judicial branch, whose members are called judges. Depending on the jurisdiction, judges may be elected or appointed; in some cases, they are ordained by the state, or they may be self-appointed through the legal procedures known as “ad hoc appointments”. Judges are supported by staff attorneys (also called law clerks) who assist them with research and drafting opinions, and by librarians who meet the information needs of the court system.

In some jurisdictions, a decision by one court is binding on all subsequent courts of that jurisdiction. This is a principle known as “the law of stare decisis” or the “doctrine of precedent”. In other jurisdictions, a court’s decisions have only persuasive authority. The process of determining what the law is in a particular case can be complex, and involves several stages. One must first ascertain the facts, and then locate relevant statutes and cases. Next, one must read and analyze the decisions of earlier cases to determine how a court might rule on the present case’s facts. Finally, one must integrate all this information and decide what the law is in that case.

In some jurisdictions, an accused person can choose to appeal a trial verdict, asking a higher court to review the case and rule on whether it was handled properly. Appellants are usually called plaintiffs or defendants. Probation officers screen pretrial release applicants and monitor convicted offenders released under supervision by the court, and are often known as probation services or pretrial services. Public defenders represent the interests of those who can’t afford their own lawyers in criminal matters. Jury pools are groups from which actual jury panels for a trial are chosen, through a process called voir dire. Judges must follow strict rules of procedure and evidence to ensure fair trials. They must also follow a code of ethics and abide by the Constitution, the law, and their own oaths as judicial officers.