The New Oxford Companion to Law

edited by Peter Cane and Joanne Conaghan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 1306pp, £34.11 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19 929054 3.

Reviewed by Julian Bates

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My first impression was that this was the Oxford Dictionary of Law's big brother. It turned out to be much more than that, and its two editors and 40 editorial consultants and advisers deserve credit for successfully managing the output of hundreds of authors.

Who is it aimed at?

The problem with specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias and the like is that it can be very difficult to establish who they're aimed at. The New Oxford Companion to Law is no exception. The blurb is not much help, pointing vaguely at 'any reader needing a concise yet expert explanation of a subject in law', and elsewhere we are told that the book is 'designed first and foremost for non-lawyers'. This is a pity, because much clear, informative writing lies within.

First published in 1980, this was originally the work of a single author, Professor David Walker of the University of Glasgow. Nearly 30 years on, 'over 700 scholars and practitioners' (including a few whose work I have copyedited) have contributed to this 'new' edition. The result is a collection of short essays of between 250 and 1,500 words apiece, and therein lies the book's strength.


The more general topics are the most thoroughly covered. Thus justice offers a four-column summary of the concept itself allied to the operation of legal institutions, a discussion that takes us through the common law, interpretation of legislation, judicial review and the rule of law. (JUSTICE, the lawyers' organization, merits half a column.)

Even in a work of this length, there are bound to be some omissions. In an attempt to check whether this title hits the spot when it comes to its non-lawyer target market, I put myself in the position of a journalist seeking clarification on the law related to drinking and driving. I looked up 'Alcohol'. Nothing there. 'Drink driving'. No entry. Searches for 'Road Traffic Act', 'Motoring offences' and 'Breathalyser' were all equally fruitless. Only later, when I realised that there is a subject index after the main index (on page 1285), was I able to establish that there is nothing on motoring law anywhere in the book.

Extra dimension

It was my own fault. Years of not copyediting the prelims until after the main text meant that I only read the invaluable 'Introduction and Reader's Guide' just before writing this review. As it clearly explains, 'this is a book about law rather than a book of law'. It discharges that function well.

This is a wordy tome and it benefits from 120 delightful illustrations selected by Sarah Carter. These marvellous colour pictures cover many aspects of law and legal history and add an extra dimension to the Companion.

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