What Is Law?

What Is Law?

Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of considerable debate. Typically, laws are enforced through the threat of sanction (e.g. fines, imprisonment or other punishment). However, some scholars have criticized the notion that the concept of law necessarily implies that there must be sanctions attached to it in order for it to be considered a “law.” This view, often referred to as natural law theory, suggests that laws are based on innate principles of morality that can be discovered and derived through the study of nature and history.

Law affects politics, economics and culture in many ways, influencing decisions made by governments, businesses, individuals and other organizations. It is a fundamental aspect of a society and is necessary for a peaceful life. It defines relationships between people in a variety of ways, ranging from contracts and property to criminal justice and health care.

There are several different kinds of law: Statutory law, which comes from the legislative branch of government and results in laws; regulations, which are duly enacted by the executive branch, often through decrees and regulations; and case law, which is a decision rendered by a judge in a specific case that then has broader legal weight for future cases, known as precedent or stare decisis. Law also includes the rules and procedures that judges follow as they hear cases and determine what is fair or unfair.

The field of law encompasses numerous specialized fields, such as contract law, which concerns agreements between people to exchange goods or services; tort law, which deals with injuries to person and property; and intellectual property law, which covers the ownership of ideas and inventions. It is also important to understand the distinction between procedural and substantive law.

Procedural law consists of the judicial system and all the rules that govern how courts operate. Substantive law, on the other hand, consists of the actual legal codes, statutes and court decisions that make up the substance of a nation’s laws.

There are also countless philosophical debates surrounding the concept of law. One of the most prominent is over whether or not law incorporates morality and how much a judge should use his or her own sense of right and wrong to interpret law. Another ongoing discussion concerns the extent to which a judge should consider the political and cultural context in which a law is being applied. This is called contextualism and is an important component of legal analysis. Other debates include the appropriate balance between freedom of speech and privacy, the use of force in a democracy, and the role of religion in the law. The Law section of the Oxford Reference Encyclopedia is an extensive and authoritative resource that contains more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on this broad subject area. It is written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, and its coverage extends from basic concepts and terminology to major debates in legal theory.