The Oxford Dictionary of Law


Law is the system of rules a society or a government recognises as regulating the activities of its members. It may be created by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or by judges, through precedent. It can be enforced by governmental agencies such as the police and civil service; or by private individuals, through contracts and arbitration agreements. It may be a source of social restrictions and penalties, such as fines and prison sentences; it can also be used as a tool for economic development, such as tax incentives.

The exact definition of law is a subject of longstanding debate. Some scholars have suggested that it is a set of principles whose application results in justice being done, others that it is a process that involves interpreting and applying existing rules. Nevertheless, most definitions agree that law is a social construct that emerges from the interaction of different influences. These include the felt necessities of a particular time, the prevalent moral and political theories, and intuitions of public policy, whether avowed or unconscious. The history of the law is therefore less a matter of logic than it is of experience.

In some legal systems, decisions by courts are explicitly acknowledged as law on equal footing with legislative statutes and executive regulations. This is known as the doctrine of precedent or stare decisis. The law of property is often an example of this, where the same article of land may have two groups of ownership rights – the legal title and the equitable title.

Other areas of law include labour and employment, which includes the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade unions; immigration and nationality law, including the right to live in a country other than one’s own; family law, which covers marriage, divorce, children’s rights and property; and criminal procedure, which defines how cases are conducted in courts; and evidence law, which determines which materials can be used as evidence in court cases.

The law can also cover social issues, such as censorship, crime and punishment, and the legal status of homosexuals and the disabled. Finally, it can be applied to a whole nation or region, as with international law and regional law. Oxford Reference provides authoritative, concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on every aspect of this broad and varied field of study. Our content spans more than 34,000 entries — from major legal terms to minor details of procedure, from legal history to current debates in law theory. Our entries are written by trusted experts for researchers at every level and complemented by a comprehensive index. The law is a powerful and influential force in any society, and is fundamental to its operation and function. Our comprehensive coverage makes it easy for users to find the information they need. Our goal is to help them achieve the best possible outcomes in their research, teaching and practice. We hope you will join us in this endeavour.

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