The Basics of Law


Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating its members’ actions. Its main functions are to keep the peace, preserve the status quo and protect individual rights, but it also serves social justice, solve recurrent coordination problems, proclaim symbolic expressions of communal values, settle disputes about facts and impose sanctions on wrongdoers. The latter function of law is a source of controversy: some think that it is essentially coercive and that the social wants that it fulfills can only be met by its ability to compel compliance; others (most notably Roscoe Pound and later H.L.A. Hart and Joseph Raz) have argued that the coercive aspect of law is a secondary element in its overall role as an authoritative social institution.

The vast variety of laws encompasses virtually every area of life, and their subjects intertwine and overlap. Examples include labour law, which studies the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union; intellectual property law, which relates to the ownership of creative work such as music and literature, as well as to inventions; trust law, which sets out the rules for people’s money that they put into investments; and criminal law, which deals with offences against the state and with the protection of citizens’ rights.

Other important fields are commercial law and space law, which deal with commercial transactions and the exploration of outer space; family law, which relates to marriage and divorce; and constitutional law, which governs the structure of a nation-state’s political system. Many nations have a mixed legal system, with elements of common law and civil law; for an examination of these systems see the articles on the United States; the United Kingdom; Australia; Canada; and South Africa.

In the modern era, there has been an increase in claims that law should impose positive obligations on governments. These are usually expressed in the form of a constitutional statement such as ‘the freedom of speech and of the press shall not be impaired’, or ‘no person shall be deprived of his/her liberty without due process of law’. This has been accompanied by rising public awareness of discrimination on the grounds of gender, religion or nationality and by the assertion of entitlements against certain forms of exploitation such as slavery. These broader issues are dealt with in articles on human rights and land reform. For an examination of the relation between politics and the law, see constitution; ideology; and political party. See also the article on political regimes. This article is part of the Oxford Reference series on Law. This collection of over 34,000 concise definitions and specialist encyclopedic entries is written by expert authors for researchers at every level. From subject-based titles like Criminal and Family law to major debates in Legal theory, this comprehensive set of volumes provides a one-stop resource for research.