The Oxford Dictionary of Law

Law is a set of rules that social or governmental institutions develop in order to control behavior and regulate relationships among people. These rules can be imposed by a government and enforced by the police or other agencies, or they may be voluntary contracts made by private individuals or groups. The term law also refers to the professions – including attorneys and judges – that deal with advising clients about legal matters, representing them in court, making decisions, and administering punishments.

Law shapes politics, economics, history, and society in many ways, and it serves as a mediator of relations between people. While some nations rely on an authoritarian regime to keep the peace and maintain stability, others use their legal systems to protect minorities against majorities and facilitate social change in a democratic way.

In a democracy, laws are created by legislative bodies – primarily parliaments and congresses – elected by the people to represent them in national and international affairs. These laws can be enacted by individual legislators or by group legislatures, resulting in statutes; by the executive branch through decrees and regulations; or established by judicial precedent in common law jurisdictions. The latter method of creating laws allows for a greater degree of flexibility, but it is also more prone to error.

The precise nature of law remains a subject of debate. Some philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, argue that law consists of commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to which the people have a habit of obedience. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas, argue that law reflects innate moral principles that are unchanging.

Developing and applying law is an art as well as a science. Often it is necessary to make judgments based on incomplete or conflicting evidence, and the law must balance competing values like justice, fairness, and safety. The law must also change with technology and changes in the environment. For example, the law must adapt to the changing attitudes of women in society – for example, the criminalization of obscene and threatening phone calls.

Oxford Reference offers authoritative, concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on all aspects of the law, from family and employment to international and corporate law. The collection includes a range of expert opinions from leading practitioners and scholars, and is designed for researchers at every level. It also features cross-referenced entries, charts, and chronologies. All of these features help users to locate and understand the most important information quickly and easily.