Law is the discipline that studies a community’s body of rules, and how they are enforced. A wide variety of legal systems exist, with the major ones being common law, civil law, and religious law. In addition to its judicial function, law also serves the social functions of solving recurrent coordination problems, proclaiming normative expressions of communal values, and resolving disputes about facts. It also has a coercive aspect, in which the state can impose its authority on citizens through violent means.
Law reflects a society’s values, and is influenced by the culture and tradition in which it is created. The way that people live their lives, the problems they face and their aspirations for a better future shape their laws. This is why the study of law requires an understanding of a society’s history and social structure.
The study of Law covers many different areas of the subject, ranging from contracts and criminal law to property and administrative law. Oxford Reference offers a comprehensive range of concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across the full spectrum of this broad field.
In countries with common law systems, a judge or barrister will interpret and apply laws in a particular case. This means that a judge will look to past cases to decide the law, and follow the principle of stare decisis (Latin for ‘to stand by decisions’) that a previous decision should be followed in similar cases.
Civil law systems, on the other hand, are based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law and canon law, supplemented or modified by local custom and culture. These legal systems, which make up about 60% of the world’s population, allow judges to adapt the rules in a jurisdiction to meet social change and new needs through interpretation and creative jurisprudence.
Ultimately, both types of legal system have their strengths and weaknesses. Common law, for example, allows judges to be the depositories of a country’s law, and Blackstone famously said that the judge is a “living oracle, bound by an oath to decide according to the law”.
However, this method of interpreting and applying the law is open to criticism because it can lead to inconsistent outcomes. The same is true for civil law systems, although in the latter case it can be less difficult to identify inconsistencies because of the clarity of the codes in which they are written.
The main reason for this inconsistency is the lack of a coherent theory of the nature of law, or of its place in a social context. This theory would provide a way for a judge or a researcher to know what part of the law is relevant in a given situation, and how that might be changed by changing social conditions. It would also help to define the role of other normative domains such as morality or social conventions in determining what is lawful or not. In addition, it would show how the ‘rules of law’ can be compared to other domains such as physics (as in a law of gravity), biology or even social science.