Law is a system of rules that governs human relationships, sets minimum standards for economic activities, and provides the means for resolving disputes and protecting people’s liberties and rights. The study of law involves understanding the history, structure and development of laws as well as their consequences for people and societies. Law also encompasses the professions that deal with advising and representing people in court, making legal decisions and administering justice.
The most important function of law is establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving conflicts and providing for social change. However, laws may be subject to many influences and the way they serve these basic functions varies widely from nation to nation. For example, a nation that has military power can keep the peace and maintain the status quo, but it may oppress minorities or oppress political opponents (as in Burma under Saddam Hussein).
In the United States, constitutional law defines and limits the powers of the government and ensures that no one person or group can gain unchecked authority to make or enforce laws. James Madison wrote that no government can be trusted to do the right thing without the constraint of a constitution. Modern writers such as Max Weber have reshaped thinking on the extension of state power over daily life and society.
Law includes the rules that regulate business, civil and criminal cases, constitutional law, international law, family and labour laws and major debates in legal theory. Oxford Reference offers more than 34,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across this broad and complex field.