The Basics of Law


Law is a system of rules that governs human actions and interactions. It is a broad and complex subject, covering such topics as contracts, torts, family law, labour law, constitutional law and criminal law. The study of law is also important for understanding other fields, such as history, economics and philosophy. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways and raises many questions about fairness and justice.

In most legal systems, there are two types of laws: civil and criminal. The former covers disputes between individuals, such as a lawsuit for personal injury or defamation. The latter covers conduct that is considered harmful to society and can be punished by a state or community.

The main purpose of a legal system is to serve the people and protect them from external threat. The specific functions of a nation’s law vary greatly depending on the political landscape and the power of its rulers. For example, a military dictatorship may keep the peace and preserve social order but may oppress minorities or even its own citizens. In contrast, a democratic government aims to serve its citizens by providing them with freedoms and protections, as well as by addressing social change through the legislative process.

There are many different forms of law, ranging from administrative procedures to regulations in areas like finance and taxes, employment, and the environment. A legal field such as criminology deals with the investigation and prosecution of crimes, such as rape, murder and burglary. Other related fields include forensic science, crime scene analysis and evidence collection.

A legal system’s judicial branch is responsible for making decisions on legal matters, including criminal and civil cases. The judiciary’s most important tool is case precedent, which means that a decision made by a higher court will typically be followed by lower courts in similar cases. This is known as the rule of stare decisis. In countries with a common law tradition, judicial decisions are not written down as laws but are instead binding precedents.

Some legal systems are explicitly based on religious precepts, such as Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia. However, these traditions also require human elaboration to develop into a complete and detailed law.

Law is a vital area of study for students and researchers across the social sciences, humanities and the natural sciences. Oxford Reference offers expert-level coverage of this vast and diverse subject, from general introductory guides to specialist encyclopedia articles. Our authoritative and accessible entries cover the main concepts, processes and organisation of law, as well as major debates in legal theory. We provide clear definitions, examples and charts to help you make sense of this complex topic. Our extensive range of dictionaries, atlases and handbooks will also assist you in your research.