Law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth encyclopedic entries covering the major topics, concepts, processes, and organization of legal systems around the world. Our comprehensive coverage includes law and legal theory, civil, criminal, and commercial law; international law; family law; and labor law.
Legal theory is the attempt to create a systematic understanding of law. It draws on philosophical and political ideas and practices to address the nature, purposes, and functions of law.
One major theme of legal theory is the relationship between law and morality. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s definition of law is “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others argued that a concept of natural justice was an innate part of the human mind that made some laws just by virtue of their being morally right.
Law’s primary purposes include keeping the peace, maintaining the status quo, preserving individuals rights and freedoms, protecting minorities against majorities, and providing an orderly process for social change. But, the extent to which a nation’s laws accomplish these goals is greatly dependent on the nation’s political landscape. In some cases, powerful people or groups wielding military or bureaucratic power can extend their control to make and enforce law, even in a democracy. In other cases, people revolt against existing political-legal authority.