The Nature of Law

Law is a system of rules, enforceable by institutions and enforced by individuals to control the behavior of people in society. The precise nature of law is a subject of longstanding debate, extending to philosophy and even to science (see physics, theory of).

The fundamental purpose of a legal system is to serve society by establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting individual liberty and rights. Different legal systems accomplish these goals in different ways. For example, an authoritarian government may keep the peace and maintain the status quo but it can also oppress minorities or suppress democratic political change. A democracy may maintain the peace and promote social justice but it can be vulnerable to revolutions or armed rebellions by groups who believe that the current laws do not serve their interests.

Most of the laws of a nation are established by courts and legislatures. Courts may set rules governing procedural detail or may establish general principles of fairness or ethical behavior. Some states have separate judiciaries for civil and criminal cases, while others combine the two into a single judicial branch. The law also encompasses a wide range of subjects, from contract law to zoning regulations to environmental protection.

A major aspect of the law is that it evolves over time, with judges interpreting and enforcing previous cases. This “judge-made common law” operated as the primary source of law for several hundred years before Parliament gained legislative powers to create statutory law. Judicial opinions provide rationales and policies that can be balanced with judgment in future cases, rather than the bright-line rules typically embodied in statutes.

In general, a rule of law is a principle that a judge or other official recognizes as being generally recognized and accepted by a given jurisdiction or community, although the judge has discretion to apply it in individual cases. The resulting body of law reflects the judicial decisions and societal preferences that have been formed around that rule.

The study of law includes the study of the history and development of specific laws, the philosophy of law, and the nature of law in various historical and modern societies. Oxford Reference provides expert-authored entries on the broad subject of law, ranging from criminal and tax law to human rights and international law. It also covers the organization of legal systems, the process of adjudication, and major issues in legal theory. Oxford Reference is the leading provider of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries. Our comprehensive coverage is designed for researchers at every level and on all platforms, from the classroom to the research library. See also censorship; crime and punishment; criminal law; family law; international law; labor law; and judicial system.