Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. It is a large and complex subject, with many branches and sub-disciplines. Oxford Reference provides more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline—from criminal law, tax and social security law and human rights law to family and employment law, international law and major debates in legal theory.
Law informs politics, economics and history in a variety of ways, acting as the mediator between relations among people. It is important for the stability of society and the development of an economy, and it has been a source of conflict in many societies. It has also been a source of great philosophical controversy, with writers such as Max Weber reshaping thinking on the nature and scope of state power, and John Austin’s famous statement that “law is the aggregate set of precepts laid down by a man as politically superior or sovereign over men, as political subjects.”
Legal systems can be broadly grouped into civil law systems, which use coded statutes, and common law systems, which rely on judge-made precedent and are not based on codified statutes. A third category is mixed systems, which combine elements of civil and common law. In the United States, for example, the civil law tradition is predominant but it coexists with a strong common law heritage.
Contract law covers all agreements between people, from a simple sale of goods to a complex contract involving a derivatives trade. Property law defines people’s rights and duties toward their tangible property, including real estate (also called ‘real property’ or ’realty’) and personal property (movable items such as computers and cars).
Administrative and public law deals with the functions of governments and other bodies, and includes such topics as taxation law, parliamentary procedure and civil rights. Labour law encompasses the tripartite industrial relationship between worker, employer and trade union, and concerns collective bargaining regulation and the right to strike. Commercial law covers commercial contracts, agency law, insurance law, bills of exchange and the law of trusts—all originating in the medieval Lex Mercatoria.
Other areas of law include competition law, which traces its origins back to Roman decrees against price fixing and English restraint of trade, and consumer law, encompassing regulations on everything from unfair contract terms to airline baggage insurance. The legal profession has a number of titles, including esquire, to indicate barristers of greater dignity, and doctor of laws, to signify a person who has obtained a PhD in Law. Law also influences culture in a number of ways, from the way that a society honors judges to the way that people use words like sex, race and religion in their everyday speech. It is a highly important and diverse field, shaping the world we live in in a multitude of ways.