What Is Law?
Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. Oxford Reference offers concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on this broad discipline—from criminal law and taxation to human rights and international law—as well as major debates in legal theory. Our extensive coverage, written by trusted experts, includes essential information for researchers at every level.
In a nation, laws serve many purposes: they establish standards, maintain order, resolve disputes, and protect freedoms and liberties. Some legal systems are more effective at meeting these goals than others. For example, an authoritarian regime may keep peace and maintain the status quo, but it may also oppress minorities or political opponents. In contrast, a constitutional democracy may promote social change while protecting the liberty of its citizens.
The law consists of the rules, categories, and relationships that a society recognizes as binding its members. It can include the rules of a constitution, statutes, and common law, as well as customary and Islamic law. In most countries, laws are consolidated and codified in codes. Civil law, which is derived from Roman law and has been adopted by about 60% of the world’s nations, emphasizes cooperation between persons and reflects the values of secularism and science. It tends to be a legislative and prescriptive system, but it often leaves room for interpretation and creative jurisprudence.
Disputes are resolved through courts, which are a vital part of a system of law. These institutions hear arguments and make decisions based on the facts of a case. They also serve to provide a sense of justice and fairness, and they ensure that all persons are treated equally before the law.
Some courts have jurisdiction over a limited geographic area, while others can decide cases arising from anywhere in the country or even around the world. The right to appeal is one of the fundamental features of a democratic judicial system. A person can appeal a decision of a lower court to another court for a review of the judgment or for other reasons.
A wrongful conviction is an instance of an illegally obtained or improperly enforced court judgment. Those who believe that their rights have been violated by an unjust verdict can file a lawsuit against the perpetrator. The defendant is usually arraigned in the first proceeding before a trial. This is where the plaintiff and defendant are told of the charges against them and asked to enter a plea. During the course of a trial, witnesses are called to testify and evidence is presented. A jury is often sequestered from outside influences for the duration of its deliberations. A court reporter keeps a record of the proceedings.