Oxford Reference – The Definition of Law

Law is the body of rules enforceable by a state or other authority that defines, governs and regulates human behaviour. Its precise definition is a matter of longstanding debate.

Oxford Reference provides concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad discipline. From criminal law and taxation to family, employment and international law, our articles cover the major areas of legal study. We also explore the broader context of law, including its influence on history and society, and major debates in legal philosophy.

The law shapes politics, economics and history in many ways, as well as governing the everyday lives of people in countries around the world. It influences business, education, religion and social life in general.

The most widely used types of law are contracts, property and criminal. Contract law concerns agreements to exchange goods or services, ranging from the standard terms of a shop contract to an option trade on the derivatives market. Property law relates to people’s rights and duties towards tangible property, such as land and buildings (‘real property’), their other possessions (‘personal property’) and intangible ownership such as shares and intellectual property. It includes a wide range of legislation including mortgages, rental agreements and a variety of laws about the registration of property.

The concept of the rule of law is an important part of the definition of law. It entails that the law is public and clear, that it comprises determinate requirements that people can consult before acting and that it is reasonably stable. It is designed to protect against anarchy and the Hobbesian war of all against all and to enable individuals to plan their lives with confidence that they can predict the consequences of their actions.

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