Law is the set of rules and principles created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behaviour. The precise definition of law is a matter of debate, with some commentators considering it to be an art, science, or both. Law encompasses a broad range of subjects including criminal, labour and property laws. The study of law is often considered to be a profession in its own right, and many people find careers as judges, lawyers or advocates.

The main purposes of law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The legal system also serves to reflect and reinforce a society’s values and morals. For example, certain crimes are prohibited because society has decided that they are not acceptable (e.g. assault).

However, the legal system should not be seen as an unquestionable authority. In the 17th century William Blackstone wrote that judges should be “the depositories of the law; the living oracles, who must decide all doubtful cases according to what is established common law.” Judges must therefore be careful not to create new law on their own but should rely on existing laws and precedents and make only modest adjustments when necessary.

The legal system must be impartial to ensure justice is served. This can be achieved through distributive or corrective justice. The former aims to ensure that all members of society benefit from social policies while the latter seeks to remedy wrongs that may have been committed (e.g., compensation for physical injury or financial restitution).

Laws vary by place because the law must be culturally appropriate. For instance, the responsibilities of an employer and employee differ from country to country, and the rights of a citizen in one state might not be recognised in another. For this reason, international law is a major subject that deals with the rights and responsibilities of countries.

In addition, there are a wide variety of other subjects in law that deal with specific aspects of society. These include labour law, which covers the tripartite relationship between worker, employer and trade union; criminal and civil procedure which covers the rules by which trials and appeals are conducted; and evidence law, which determines what materials can be admitted into court for a case to be built.

Laws are constantly changing and developing to reflect society’s needs. This makes the study of law a fascinating and ever-changing field to explore. The Oxford Reference law collection offers authoritative and accessible information on all the major areas in this diverse discipline, from crime, tax and family law to international and environmental law. With expert, specialist encyclopedic entries written by trusted experts and informed by contemporary debates, the law collection provides an invaluable resource for researchers at every level.