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The Oxford Reference to Law

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Law is a body of rules that governs a country or community. It defines and enforces the social norms that constrain behavior, including restrictions on freedom and property rights. It also shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. Law is a vast and complex subject, with debates over its precise definition ongoing. The study of law involves a variety of disciplines, such as criminal justice; political science; philosophy; sociology; economics; history and geography.

The term law has been defined in different ways by various philosophers and writers. Bentham’s utilitarian theory defines it as “commands, backed by the threat of sanctions, from a sovereign, to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Others have emphasized that law incorporates morality, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Aquinas arguing that there are essentially moral laws of nature. More recently, Max Weber has reshaped thinking about the extent to which law extends to all aspects of daily life.

There are numerous branches of law, ranging from contracts to property to zoning and taxation. These laws are created and enforced in a variety of ways, including by legislatures through statutes; by executive agencies through decrees and regulations; or by judges through case law, usually under the rule of precedent. In common law legal systems, the decisions of courts are given equal status with legislative statutes and executive regulations under the doctrine of stare decisis, wherein the judgments of higher courts bind lower ones to ensure that similar cases reach similar results.

Legal systems differ widely among countries and regions. Civil law systems, which have a Roman origin and cover about 60% of the world’s population, are based on concepts, categories and rules that are often supplemented or modified by local custom or culture. Common law systems, which are based on English common law and have been largely modified by the influence of continental law, are found in the remaining 40% of the world’s population.

Law also includes a wide range of practices and policies that can be described as not being strictly legal but are considered to be generally accepted or desirable by the majority of a society’s members. These include censorship, crime control, policing and military action.

Oxford Reference offers comprehensive, authoritative and accessible coverage of the whole field of law, providing concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on the key issues, developments and personalities. Our content spans over 34,000 entries, including legal terms and concepts, as well as a broad range of primary and secondary sources, covering the entire range of the discipline. This resource is an indispensable tool for students, researchers and professionals in all areas of law. It is available on the Oxford Online Library and the Oxford Reference mobile app. The content is regularly reviewed and updated. The latest edition is available to download free of charge for all customers. The Oxford Online Library is available for subscription or purchase from most academic libraries worldwide. Please contact your librarian to find out more.

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