The Oxford Guide to Law

The Oxford Guide to Law


Law is the system of rules that a community or country recognises as regulating the actions of its members. It has many different functions, including establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. Law is also an area of scholarly inquiry, covering legal history, philosophy, economic analysis and sociology. The legal system is the basis of modern state authority and the extension of its powers. It raises complex questions of equality, fairness and justice that can only be fully addressed in the context of a wider society.

Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries across this broad subject. From criminal law and family law to labour law and international law, this collection of trusted sources covers all aspects of this fundamental discipline.

Generally, there are two broad types of law: criminal law and civil law. Criminal law deals with conduct that is deemed harmful to the social order and which can be punished by fines or imprisonment. Civil law relates to the resolution of lawsuits (disputes) between individuals or organizations. Some countries have a civil code that codifies and consolidates their laws; others still use common law systems, in which judges establish the legal system through their decisions. In addition to these main areas, there are numerous sub-disciplines, relating to particular types of agreements, relationships or crimes.

Employment law, for example, involves the tripartite industrial relationship of worker, employer and trade union and includes collective bargaining regulation as well as the right to strike. Insurance law covers the principles of risk transfer, such as contracts of assurance and contracts of reinsurance; it also regulates insurers. Property law governs ownership and possession; it includes rights in rem, which relate to land or real property, and rights in personam, which apply to movable objects such as cars and jewellery. Laws governing business and money are found in commercial law and banking law, which include regulations about the amounts of capital banks must hold as well as best practice for investment.

The laws of a country or community are a reflection of its culture and values, as expressed through its politicians, civil servants, police officers and judges. It is these people who decide which laws are to be enacted, what penalties to impose for breaking them and how they are enforced. The laws of a state are often used to control the behaviour of its citizens, which is why it is important for them to be fair and democratic. The laws of a state may also be used to maintain stability and protect minorities from majorities, as well as to bring about orderly social change. These purposes are at the core of what many would consider to be the fundamental purpose of law. The article concludes that, despite these intentions, some legal systems have not succeeded in all of these goals equally well. For examples, authoritarian states may keep the peace and preserve social status quo but in the process oppress minorities or their political opponents.