What Is Law?


Law is a system of rules enforced by a government to govern conduct, maintain order and ensure justice. Law can be created through legislation, regulation, custom or judicial decisions. Legal systems vary widely across the world, ranging from strict authoritarian dictatorships to liberal democracies. Regardless of their differences, all laws must serve certain core functions: to keep peace, maintain status quo, preserve individual rights, protect minorities against majorities and promote social justice. Some legal systems achieve these goals more successfully than others.

Legal systems vary widely in the way they define law and the extent to which they are implemented. For example, some laws are enforceable by public prosecutors or the courts, whereas others may be enforced through private contracts and enacted by self-governing agencies such as utilities (water, electricity). Many countries have legal systems that combine elements of both positive and natural law. The former is defined by a set of precepts that derive from human reason, the views of mankind’s nature and constitution and the sanction of divine revelation. This is referred to as natural law or natural jurisprudence. The latter, on the other hand, is based upon the common sense of men and the logical consequences of actions.

While there is no universally agreed definition of law, most scholars agree that it consists of a system of enforceable rules and regulations. This could be in the form of statutes passed through the legislative process, a code of civil or criminal procedure or a collection of judicial decisions referred to as case law. In addition, some scholars also see law as a concept that includes all norms and customs recognised and enforced by a society or state.

In general, there are three main schools of thought about the purpose and function of law: rationalist, naturalist and neo-realist. Rationalists believe that the law is an expression of a consistent reality, and that it must be interpreted and applied in a fair and reasonable manner. For example, the law that states that anything that is thrown up in space will come down. This is a law because it is an expression of a consistent reality that can be verified by empirical methods.

Naturalists believe that the law should be based on objective facts and can be applied to all members of a society. This school of thought has a long history and is most closely associated with the work of Adam Smith.

Neo-realists see law as an instrument of securing social justice. In this view, the law must reflect and react to changes in society. This view has been influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as more recently by the neo-Marxist philosophers and legal theorists such as Michel Foucault and Émile Durkheim. The study of law covers a broad range of subjects, from criminal and administrative law to constitutional law and international law. Oxford Reference has more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries covering the major topics in this field.