The Oxford Dictionary of Law

Law is the set of rules that a particular community recognises as regulating their behaviour, and that are enforced by a system of courts. It is a broad term and there are many different opinions about what the precise nature of law is: some believe it reflects a moral code, others that it consists of commands, backed by threat of sanction, from a sovereign to whom people have habitually listened and obeyed, while still others, such as philosopher John Austin, suggest that law merely embodies a practical solution to an identified problem.

The most common definition of law focuses on its role as a mechanism for social control. The ‘rule of law’ is the principle that all members of society are subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes, and that all citizens can expect to be treated equally under them. This approach is popular in many Western societies, and has been endorsed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and a range of international treaties.

There are a wide variety of fields within the study of law, each of which is defined by a different set of principles and methodologies. For example, administrative law concerns the operation of government agencies; contract law is concerned with the formation and enforcement of agreements between private parties; criminal law is concerned with offences committed against public order; labour law is concerned with the tripartite industrial relationship between employee, employer and trade union; and evidence law is concerned with what materials are admissible in court.

Each field of law is also influenced by its disciplinary background. For example, academics in the philosophy of law may consider the extent to which laws reflect a rationality that is inherent in a just society; while lawyers tend to be interested in how their clients are best protected and how justice can be achieved.

The study of law has long been recognised as a key part of the liberal arts, and it is a discipline which continues to play a vital role in our modern world. With a global impact and the power to change lives, legal research can help shape the future and inspire progress.

The Oxford Reference law collection contains more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across the whole spectrum of this broad subject area—from major legal systems and the principles of law to individual areas such as family, employment, immigration, or taxation. Written by experts for researchers at every level, this collection provides authoritative, accessible information on the law in its many guises, and on the major debates of legal theory. Thorough literature reviews are included where appropriate to situate the research within the context of existing legal scholarship. Each entry is clearly and concisely written, with the use of footnotes to refer to the relevant source material. It is a rich and comprehensive resource for students of law and the wider humanities and social sciences. The law is an integral part of our society and we need to understand its development, as well as how it affects us.