The Study of Law


Law is a set of rules that governs the activities of people in a society, which may be enforced by mechanisms such as courts or police and sanctions such as fines or imprisonment. It is often defined as a system of control that serves to regulate behaviour, but its precise definition is a matter of debate. Max Weber, for example, argued that it is a system of social control, with its own aims and principles, while Roscoe Pound thought it was mostly a tool of coercion.

A society’s laws may be established through a group legislature, as in parliamentary democracies; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or by judges, as in common law jurisdictions. Laws may also be created by private individuals, through legally binding contracts and arbitration agreements that adopt alternative ways of resolving disputes to standard court litigation.

Legal systems vary considerably, but the basic components are similar across countries. There are constitutional law governing the structure of governments and the separation of powers, statutory or legislative law laying down specific rules, regulatory laws enforcing standards, and case law interpreting statutes and precedents. Then there are the specific areas of law, such as criminal, administrative, family, contract, property and international law.

For example, the laws of a country regulate how citizens can live together and conduct business; how they can travel to other countries and how they can obtain or lose citizenship; and what happens in cases of crime, accident and marriage. Other examples include administrative law, which covers how governments manage their operations; commercial law, which relates to the transactions of businesses; and intellectual property law, which protects creations like music, art, books and inventions.

The study of law involves examining these complexities and considering the deeper dimensions of what might seem like simple, straightforward rules. For instance, there are questions about the morality of law and how to define what is morally right or wrong. There are also arguments about whether judges should be independent and uninfluenced by politics or if they should follow their own sense of what is fair or unfair.

The law is a very complex subject, but its deeper dimensions are well worth exploring. To understand this, it is important to explore the wider field of law studies — including history, sociology and philosophy. For further reading, see Oxford Reference’s collection of expert-written articles on Law and its subfields.

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