Law is the system of rules that a community recognises as regulating its members’ actions. Oxford Reference covers all aspects of this vast discipline, from criminal and civil law to human rights and family and commercial law. Our authoritative, expert-authored entries provide clear definitions and in-depth information on the major terms and concepts, complemented by charts and chronologies wherever useful.
A central feature of legal study is its normative character, which makes it different from empirical sciences (such as gravity) or social sciences such as economics. Law lays down how people ought or must behave, what they may or must require from each other and what they must do with what they have.
Modern legal systems vary, but most are based on a combination of legislative sources – laws passed by governments or parliaments and codifications of custom that have been recognised as authoritative through centuries of judicial interpretation and creative jurisprudence. Some have a more pronounced role for the judiciary in shaping law to meet changing needs, while others, like the Roman law of the early Empire or the medieval Lex Mercatoria emphasised freedom of contract and alienability of property.
Tort law focuses on damage and injury suffered by individuals, whether physical or psychological. Criminal law concerns conduct that the governing authority believes is harmful to the social order and can result in fines, imprisonment or execution. Other areas of law include administrative, constitutional and international law, and company and commercial law, which have a long heritage in Europe, especially the Law Merchant, dating back to the 17th Century.