In broad terms, substantive law defines the rights and duties of persons; procedural law defines and deals with procedures for enforcing those rights and duties. Substantive law determines a wide variety of matters—for example, what is required to form a contract, what the difference is between larceny and robbery, when one is entitled to compensation for an injury, and so on. The rules of procedure and jurisdiction determine the court or administrative agency that may handle a claim or dispute; the form of the trial, hearing, or appeal; the time limits involved; and so on. Related rules also cover the kinds of evidence that may be presented. Such rules are more limiting in trial courts than in administrative agencies. The fine points of procedural law are considerable, but they are generally thought to be indispensable to whatever efficiency and fairness law may have.



Public law concerns the relationships within government and those between governments and individuals. Because the Roman codes were almost entirely limited to the private area, public law is usually not codified. In civil-law countries, separate administrative courts adjudicate claims and disputes between the various branches of government and citizens, and many lawyers specialize in public law. In France, Germany, and Italy, still other courts handle constitutional issues.

Public law is not quite so clearly demarcated in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Under the common-law approach the same courts handle public and private litigation. Because the United Kingdom has no written constitution, basic principles pertaining to government powers and limits and to fundamental individual rights are found in acts of Parliament, judicial opinions, and tradition. The United States, on the other hand, has a distinct body of constitutional law.

The development of administrative law is a comparatively recent occurrence. Numerous federal and state administrative agencies now make rules that reach into all manner of activities, including licensing, regulation of trades and professions, protection of health, and promotion of welfare. Their powers emanate from legislation, and their rules are reviewable by the courts.

U.S. constitutional law is the most extensive and pervasive of any country in the world. It is embodied in the Constitution and in the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court rendered over time. Through its power of judicial review, the Supreme Court may invalidate any legislation or other governmental actions that it finds to be in violation of the Constitution. Constitutional courts in some civil-law countries have similar powers. In the United Kingdom no equivalent judicial power exists, and Parliament is supreme. In totalitarian nations, constitutional limits on legislative power are generally a matter of political determination.

The U.S. Constitution allocates power within the federal government and between the federal and state governments. The first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) and subsequent amendments define fundamental individual rights by placing limits on the powers of government at all levels. Through its powers of judicial review and interpretation, the Supreme Court has played a remarkable role in facilitating the growth of national power and influence by means of decisions about acts of Congress and federal administrative law. The Court has, for the most part, acted extensively to invalidate and inhibit discriminatory legislation and to adjust the relative distribution of government-connected services and revenue so as to ultimately provide for more democratic social relations. The Court, however, is frequently the center of much controversy because of widely varying interpretations about its role and the nature of constitutional law.

Laws concerning taxation and the regulation of business are in the public area, as is criminal law, which involves the exercise of governmental power by way of enforcement and punishment. Historically, criminal law in Britain included crimes defined by the courts. In the United States crimes are defined by statute, thus satisfying constitutional notions of due process. The public-law nature of the area is further emphasized by other constitutional protections such as the right of the accused to remain silent and the right to effective counsel. Criminal law not only promotes security and order but also reinforces moral norms. Debate has been continuous regarding the legitimacy of government intervention in areas where moral attitudes are in significant conflict, such as in matters of sexual practices, pornography, birth control, and euthanasia.



Private law involves the various relationships that people have with one another and the rules that determine their legal rights and duties among themselves. The area is concerned with rules and principles pertaining to private ownership and use of property, contracts between individuals, family relationships, and redress by way of compensation for harm inflicted on one person by another. Historically, government involvement was usually minimal. Private law has also operated to provide general guidelines and security in private arrangements and interactions in ways that are complementary to morality and custom but that are not necessarily enforceable in a court of law, such as noncontractual promises and agreements within an association of private individuals.

The relative significance of purely private law has decreased in modern times. Public law dominates in government-controlled societies; democratic societies increasingly have a mix of public and private law. The private sphere includes individuals and a vast array of groups, associations, organizations, and special legal entities such as corporations. They compete with one another and with government for control of resources, wealth, power, and the communication of ideas and values. Special fields of law, such as labor law, facilitate and control this competition. Much of such law is in the commercial and corporate areas. The formerly purely private law of property and contracts, for example, is now overlaid with legislation, regulations, and judicial decisions reflecting the competition. The public law of taxation has significant impact on the whole private sphere. Courts have increasingly regarded resolution of seemingly private disputes as vehicles for response to changing social conditions and values—especially in the U.S. Thus, manufacturers have experienced an expansion of liability for physical injuries caused by defects in their products. The mechanism of insurance allows manufacturers to spread such costs across the general consuming public.


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