Law is a set of rules created by the state that form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. It is enforced by the state, and if it is broken sanctions can be imposed. Countries today generally have a constitution for the overall framework, and make further laws as needed for matters of detail. Most legal systems distinguish between common law, statutory law, and regulations. In common law jurisdictions, judicial decisions are binding and on equal footing with legislative statutes. In civil law systems, judicial decisions have less binding authority.
The purpose of law is to protect people and property, keep the peace, maintain social stability, ensure equality, promote justice, prevent oppression by majorities against minorities, encourage economic growth, provide for orderly social change, and guarantee fundamental human rights. Different nations achieve these goals differently, for example, authoritarian states may keep the peace but also oppress minorities and restrict individual freedoms.
A legal system must be open and transparent in its creation, application, and decision-making. It must also be predictable and uniform. Otherwise people will not be able to understand and comply with the law. People deserve to know why they are being asked to do something, and how the government has arrived at that particular law.
In general, the judiciary is responsible for resolving disputes and determining whether people accused of crimes are guilty or not. The judicial system usually has many layers, from magistrates to district and superior courts, all of which are headed by a judge who is sometimes known as a Lord, or Esquire, in the case of barristers, or Doctor of Law, for those who have earned their degrees in law.
The law is a complex phenomenon, and it can be difficult to define. In a simple sense, the law is a set of rules that people must follow, but there are many theories about the nature and meaning of the law. John Austin, for instance, suggested that the law is a “aggregate of rules set by man as politically superior to men, as political subjects”.
Other scholars have offered different definitions. Hans Kelsen, for instance, developed a “pure theory” of law, which suggests that the law is an emergent phenomenon. He also argued that custom precedes and should always be superior to legislation, because customs reflect the true aims of a society.
Another definition of law was given by Roscoe Pound, who viewed it as a means of social control. He also believed that the law must serve the interests of society, and that it is coercive in its effects. The study of law involves the research of a huge range of subjects, from contracts and criminal law to international law and family law. Oxford Reference offers thousands of concise and in-depth entries on all the key topics in this area, written by trusted experts for researchers at every level. Our trusted sources cover legal system design, legal terminology and concepts, major debates in legal theory, and much more.