Law is a set of rules created by the state which form a framework to ensure a peaceful society. If the rules are broken, sanctions can be imposed.
While the precise definition of law is subject to debate, it generally encompasses legal rules and regulations that govern social life in any jurisdiction. These rules can be made by a group legislature, resulting in statutes; by the executive through decrees and regulations; or by judges through precedent (commonly known as common law). Individuals may also create legally binding contracts.
Legal systems vary widely, with each country having its own heritage of laws and traditions. The United States uses the common law system, which derives its origins from English law. Civil law is used in countries such as France, Germany and Belgium, which trace their ancestry through the Napoleonic Code to the Corpus Juris Civilis of Roman law.
A nation’s laws are a key aspect of its political structure, and can serve a variety of purposes, including keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving the rights of minorities against majorities, and regulating the rate of social change. Different governments have different abilities to achieve these goals, with authoritarian regimes generally unable to balance these competing interests as effectively as democratic ones.
Oxford Reference offers expert, concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across the entire scope of law, providing a comprehensive overview for researchers at every level. For more detailed information about specific areas of law, see our articles on individual subjects such as contract law; criminal law; family law; international law; and labor law.