What Is Law?

Law is a collection of rules that a society sets up to control behavior. It orders what must happen, what may not be done and who gets punished if the rules are broken. It also identifies the property rights of individuals and families. A person who studies laws is called a lawyer or jurist.

In a democratic country like the United States, there is debate over how far to go in controlling the behaviour of people by the law. For example, a very popular argument concerns whether judges should be above politics and should have a political agenda of their own. The main functions of law are to establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes and protect liberty and rights.

People try to create rules that are consistent with the way people think and behave, and the law is the result of this effort. A good rule is one that can be understood by the general public and is clear enough to be enforceable. It should also reflect the values and interests of a society, such as its religious beliefs or economic principles.

Law can be created in different ways, such as by a legislature passing a bill or by the courts interpreting a statute. It can also be implied from custom or practice and may not be written down at all. Laws are made to help people live together in peace, so they must be fair and unbiased. They must be easy to understand and apply, and they must not be discriminatory or prejudiced against anyone.

The law is a social institution and, therefore, its development over time has been shaped by many factors, including the needs of a nation’s people, its culture and traditions, and its history of conflict and cooperation. The logical assumptions of the past have not been as important as the felt necessities of the time, the prevailing moral and political theories, the intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices shared by judges with their fellow citizens.

There are many different theories about the origins of law. Hans Kelsen, for example, proposed a ‘pure theory of law’ which suggests that the law is a ‘normative science’. It does not seek to describe what must occur, but defines a set of rules that individuals have to abide by.

A central idea in the study of law is that it reflects the beliefs and preferences of a society, and should be adjusted as a consequence of changes in these. In a legal system that includes judicial review, this can be achieved through creative jurisprudence.

A wide variety of laws exist across the world, ranging from criminal to corporate law and everything in between. Oxford Reference offers authoritative, accessible entries for this broad subject area – covering international law, human rights, family and employment law, major debates in legal theory and much more. Our law articles include concise definitions and scholarly, expert commentary to give you the background you need to understand this complex area of study.