The law defines how a society should operate, and sets out rules that must be followed by everybody. It governs the activities of individuals and groups, from criminals to corporate executives. It is enforced by a nation’s government or by other legal institutions, such as courts and tribunals. Law also regulates the activities of non-governmental organisations, such as charitable groups and religious bodies. It can be divided into civil law, which deals with disputes between people, and criminal law, which deals with offenses against the state. Other branches of the law include tort law, which compensates victims for damage to their persons or property, and contract law, which deals with agreements to exchange goods or services. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward tangible property, such as land or buildings, and intangible property, such as money, stocks, or bank accounts. Competition law, which traces its roots to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade laws, is used by governments to control companies that distort market prices at the expense of consumers.
Law has many functions, but four principal ones are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. It shapes politics, economics, history, and culture in a wide variety of ways.
Different authors have offered a variety of definitions for the term “law.” Some have suggested that law is a system of social control that imposes an obligation of obedience on people. Others have argued that it is a system of justice, or that it serves as a mediator of relations between people. A third view suggests that it is a process of social engineering, and that the purpose of law is to serve the purposes of a particular society.
Regardless of its precise nature, there is no doubt that the law is a powerful force in society. It influences the structure and development of nations, shapes history, and determines the economic and social status of its inhabitants. It also provides a framework for human behavior, allowing for cooperation and mutual assistance.
Oxford Reference’s Law collection includes concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries, as well as expert commentary and primary sources on major topics and developments in law. It is an essential tool for researchers at every level.