Law is the body of rules that a community recognizes as regulating its members’ actions. It includes the principles and policies that form the basis for such rules, and their implementation by government agencies. A system of laws is a source of social control, and may be used to ensure peace and stability, protect minorities against majorities, or regulate business activities. Some laws are written, while others are customary or oral. Law is also the subject of scholarly inquiry, such as in legal history and philosophy, economic analysis, and sociology.
A basic purpose of the law is to set standards and prevent disorder. To this end, a system of laws may be designed to punish certain behaviors while rewarding other behaviors. This is particularly true of criminal law, which deals with conduct that damages society. Other purposes of the law include ensuring that contracts are enforceable, protecting private property, and resolving disputes between individuals. For this reason, the study of law often involves consideration of the relationships between people and between countries.
There are many different areas of law, and they cover virtually every aspect of life. For example, labor law is the study of a tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; it involves collective bargaining regulation and the right to strike. Immigration law involves regulating the movement of people from one country to another. Property law covers the ownership and exchange of property, including the rights to land. Tax law covers the collection and distribution of taxes, as well as laws that affect the financial markets, such as banking and securities regulations.
In addition, there are many different types of laws in existence, some of which differ dramatically from others. Civil law systems, which are found on all continents except Antarctica, are based on concepts, categories and rules largely developed by Roman and canon law and sometimes supplemented or modified by local custom and culture. These are characterized by clear expression of rights and duties, simplicity, and the ability of the judiciary to adapt laws to new needs through interpretation and creative jurisprudence.
Other forms of law include common law systems, which are primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom; Islamic law; Jewish law; and Chinese law. Disputes between individuals are dealt with in fields such as tort law, which provides compensation when someone’s property is damaged, and family law, which resolves marriage, divorce, and custody issues. Criminal law addresses behavior that violates the social order, such as murder or treason.
The study of law is a vast and diverse subject, encompassing such varied topics as constitutional law, jurisprudence, and the philosophy of law. Oxford Reference provides expert-level coverage of this broad subject, spanning more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries. The result is a complete resource for anyone interested in learning more about law.