The Oxford Reference Guide to Law


Law is the body of rules and principles that a particular state or community recognizes as binding its members. It is enforced by a controlling authority and has four principal functions: establishing standards, governing the conduct of society, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. In the modern world, the law is a complex phenomenon. The spread of power and influence among nation-states, the growth of military and policing powers and the prevalence of bureaucratic organisations pose new challenges for accountability that earlier writers such as Locke or Montesquieu could not have imagined.

The law is a major subject for study and debate in a number of academic disciplines, including history, philosophy, economics, sociology and political science. It has also become an important part of daily life, regulating the relationships between people and businesses, between individuals and families, and between nations and their citizens.

Oxford Reference’s Law collection includes more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries that cover all aspects of this broad discipline. Written by expert authors, this authoritative resource provides access to the main terms and concepts that are essential for researchers at every level of legal study.

Legal studies can be divided into three broad areas: constitutional law, criminal law and civil law. Constitutional law examines the principles that govern a country, its government and public institutions; criminal law deals with conduct considered harmful to social order and is enforced by the police; and civil law is concerned with resolving lawsuits between individuals or organizations.

While laws vary greatly from one country to another, they all share some common features: laws are publicly promulgated, equally applied and independently adjudicated; are consistent with international human rights norms and standards; are transparent in their creation, operation and enforcement; and involve a separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty and avoidance of arbitrariness. This concept of the rule of law, formulated by Max Weber and others, is more than simply a set of formal procedures for creating and applying laws; it also implies a system of societal governance that enables the government to serve its citizens and maintain stability and security.

The practice of law is regulated in many countries by an independent regulating authority such as a bar association or law society. Lawyers achieve distinct professional identity through the completion of specified legal procedures (e.g. passing a qualifying examination) and through specific forms of appointment, such as being called to the bar. A number of titles of respect are associated with the practice of law, including Esquire, to denote a barrister of greater dignity, and Doctor of Laws, to indicate a person who has been awarded this degree. Laws also exist on a smaller scale and apply to the conduct of individual citizens. For example, property laws govern how individuals and companies acquire and hold ownership of land or goods. Other laws may regulate how citizens can interact with each other through the internet or at trade fairs.