What Is Law?

Law is the body of rules governing the way people in a society behave. These rules are typically enforced through a government or by an independent regulating body.

In a nation, law serves many purposes: keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, preserving individual rights, protecting minorities against majorities, providing social justice, and promoting orderly social change. While some legal systems serve these purposes better than others, they are all governed by the same basic principles, including a strong state, separation of powers, accountability to the law, and fairness in applying the law.

Term Definitions

The Oxford Reference Library provides authoritative, accessible information on the subject of law, from criminal and tax law to international and human rights law. Coverage includes concise definitions of key terms and in-depth, specialist encyclopedia entries complemented by charts and chronologies wherever useful.

Historically, law has been defined by philosophers as a set of norms that govern the behavior of individuals and groups in society. These norms may be in the form of a written constitution or a tacit system of rights that are encoded in society’s customs and practices.

A number of different theories have developed to explain how the laws of a society are formed, and how they can be understood in a scientific or judicial context. However, these theories are usually oriented towards the ideal of treating an individual person as the primary unit of concern in a legal system.

Some theories, such as the rights theory of Hohfeldian law, assume that right-holders have a claim-right or privilege-right, which determines what they can do or are permitted to do (Lyons 1970). Others, such as the power-right and immunity-right theories, argue that the laws of a society are a set of obligations owed to individuals by other people, and that these obligations are in turn derived from specific norms that are inscribed within a society’s traditions, practices, and customs.

Another theory is the common law system, which originated in England and has become part of the legal culture in the United States and most other countries. This system relies on a history of judicial decisions that have been codified into common law principles. These principles are based on an underlying principle of “stare decisis,” which means that courts must follow previous decisions made in similar cases when they make decisions on similar issues in the future.

The most widely accepted view of law is that it is a set of norms that govern the way people in a society behave. There are various definitions of this concept, but most agree that it is a set of rules that are recognized as binding by a group of people and enforced through a centralized authority or the independent judiciary.

This definition is important to understanding the meaning of the term “law” because it does not depend on whether a system of law is ruled by a secular or religious authority. For instance, some religions such as Buddhism and Islam are not governed by the same kinds of laws that most western societies do.