Law is a system of rules created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate human behavior. It can be found in a wide variety of legal systems and is an important part of any society. The law defines right and wrong, protects against harm, provides for a fair justice system, regulates economic activity, promotes social change, and more. Law is complex and varied, with many different interpretations, nuances and intricacies. The study of law is a broad academic discipline that encompasses the legal systems of many nations and cultures.
Oxford Reference offers concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries covering all aspects of law-from criminal law, tax law and social security law, to international law, family law and employment law. Experts in their fields have written the entries, which are designed to be useful to researchers at every level of their careers.
Legal systems vary widely, from those based on ancient customs and traditions to those based on the principles of natural rights. Some are legislative, while others are primarily judiciary. The latter, known as “common law” systems, include the doctrine of stare decisis, whereby decisions of higher courts bind lower courts and future judges. These are contrasted with more detailed statutes and regulations enacted through the legislative process in “civil law” systems.
A key feature of law is that it has both a descriptive and prescriptive character. It describes how people ought to behave, or what they may require from other people, and it tells them what they must do if they are accused of a crime. This is a contrast to other types of science, such as the laws of nature (like the law of gravity), or even social policy (such as anti-discrimination law).
An important aspect of law is that it is often effected through formal processes like trial by jury and the appeals process. Other important aspects of the law are discovery, arraignment, reversal on appeal, and the verdict in a case.
Some types of law are explicitly derived from religious precepts, such as the Jewish Halakha and Islamic Sharia, or Christian canon law. Other types of law are the result of human elaboration, such as the development of jurisprudence through the use of interpretation, Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent in common law systems, or of the shari’ah in Islamic societies. The law of any nation must reflect its underlying values, and should be governed by principles such as supremacy of the law, equality before the law, participation in decision-making, accountability to the law, separation of powers, and legal transparency. This is the “rule of law”. It is a key element of democracy and human rights. It is also the guiding principle behind the United Nations system. Its implementation requires measures to ensure that the law is publicly promulgated and equally enforced, with adherence to international human rights standards. The rule of law is essential to the world’s peace, stability and prosperity.