The Oxford Reference Dictionary of Law

Law is a system of rules that a country or community develops to regulate its members’ behaviour. This system can be used to deal with criminal activity, business agreements, family matters and social relationships. The term is also used to refer to the professions that work in this area, including lawyers and judges. The legal system of a particular country is unique and complex, involving a variety of different areas of law, as well as the interaction between them. The varying needs of the people in a society require that the law should be flexible and adaptable, whilst still ensuring that certain principles remain unchanged.

The nature of the laws varies from place to place, reflecting the different political, economic and ethical interests of each nation. The power to make and enforce law is often concentrated in the hands of a few people or groups. Inevitably, there are revolts against existing power structures and aspirations for democratic rule or greater rights for citizens is a recurring theme in politics. The most fundamental function of law is to protect the lives and property of its citizens, and to ensure that individuals are treated fairly and justly by the state.

Different theories of law have been put forward throughout the centuries. The ‘utilitarian’ theory, popularised by John Austin, held that laws were commandments, backed up by the threat of sanctions from a sovereign to whom people had a habit of obeying. Others, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that there were moral and unchangeable laws of nature that govern human actions and societies, which should guide the laws of each community.

These theories are not mutually exclusive and many of them coexisted at different times in different parts of the world. The development of the English common law, for example, occurred in the context of both of these competing theories and the result has been a very complicated legal system. In modern times, the judicial branch of government is responsible for the development of the laws of a nation, but there are still differences between jurisdictions. Decisions made by higher courts in one jurisdiction are binding on lower courts in the same jurisdiction, but are not necessarily binding on other jurisdictions or other appellate courts.

The Oxford Reference law collection provides concise definitions and expert encyclopedic entries on the major subjects, concepts and processes of the law. It covers a broad spectrum of law, including criminal, company and commercial, employment, international and public law as well as major debates in legal theory. It is written by trusted experts, for researchers at every level. It will help students, scholars and professionals in a range of legal disciplines to better understand the law and how it works.