What Is Law?

Law is a system of rules and institutions that governs human interactions. The Oxford Reference Law collection contains more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline. Written by trusted experts, it covers legal terms and concepts from a wide variety of fields and areas of law, including criminal and tax laws, civil rights and social security laws, international laws, family and employment laws, and major debates in legal theory.

Laws are enforceable by the state, but can also be imposed by organizations and other groups with political power (e.g., corporations and religious institutions). They are usually codified in documents like constitutions, statutes, treaties, or court decisions.

Laws can serve a number of purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, protecting minorities against majorities, and providing for orderly social change. Many countries have different systems of laws, which reflect the varying social situations in which they exist and the power dynamics of their governments. For example, an authoritarian government may successfully keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it is unlikely to protect minority rights or promote social justice. A democratic government, on the other hand, is more likely to satisfy these aims and promote stability.