The Oxford Law Encyclopedia – What is Law?


Law is a set of rules that governs society and its behaviour. It is not a simple matter of black and white, however, as there are many layers of complexity in the concept. The Oxford Law Encyclopedia covers a broad range of legal subjects, from criminal and business law to family law, employment law, international law, constitutional law, and major debates in legal theory. Our articles are concise, authoritative, and in-depth – written by experts for researchers at every level.

The most commonly used definition is that law is a system of rules made by a government or society and enforceable by a court. It is a framework for governing behavior that defines and protects rights, privileges, duties and obligations; sets standards of morality and justice; provides procedures for resolving disputes; and relates the state to its citizens.

This vision of law reflects the beliefs that there are core values to which everyone in a society subscribes. The state is seen as a neutral arbiter that helps to resolve conflicts between differing groups. This theory is opposed to those such as Karl Marx who believe that primitive societies are free from antithesis and conflict.

Other theories of law are less comprehensive and include the idea that laws are based on a complex mixture of social, cultural and historical factors. These factors vary between societies. Some have a religious origin, such as Jewish Halakha or Islamic Sharia, while others have been elaborated through human elaboration like Qiyas (reasoning by analogy), Ijma (consensus) and precedent.