The Basics of Law

Law is the system of rules that a country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its citizens. It sets out rules about what is and is not acceptable to do, and it is enforced by the government and by courts.

Legal systems can be broadly divided into public law, which deals with matters affecting a whole society or the entire population, and private law, which deals with matters between individuals. The former is characterized by laws that are made by the government, such as taxes and laws that are enacted by the executive branch of government. The latter is characterized by laws that are made by courts, such as lawsuits and criminal cases.

The laws of a country can be broken by people who act without the permission of the government. In this way, a person can be prosecuted and have their property taken away.

Depending on the type of law, these laws can be called statutes, acts, or regulations. A statute is a bill that has passed both houses of Congress and been signed by the president. Individual laws, also known as acts, are arranged by subject in the United States Code, while regulations are written by executive departments and agencies and are arranged by category in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Rights are defined as entitlements that establish a party’s ability to do something, or to not do something (Kamm 2002: 476). In the Hohfeldian tradition, rights can manifest as either claim-rights, privilege-rights, powers-rights, and immunities-rights.

A claim-right is a right in its strictest sense; it is a definite and operative ‘entitlement’ to some particular thing, or to a certain correlative duty to a particular person. A privilege-right, on the other hand, is a right in its more restricted sense; it allows a particular person to do something that other persons cannot do.

Claims, privileges, powers, and immunities can be created explicitly (Raz 1994: 268) or implicitly. For example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes a legal right to free speech, even though the amendment does not use the word “right.”

Some rights are established by means of legal relationships exhibiting the forms and functions of a right-object (Raz 1994: 264). For instance, a person may be entitled to enjoy a certain kind of property if he or she is under a specific legal relationship with the owner.

In the most general sense, a right-object is a “thing” possessed by a person and under his or her exclusive control and possession. These “things” may be tangible objects, such as land and buildings, or intangible ones, such as intellectual properties.

Many rights can be derived from others, and some can be established by means of legal relations exhibiting the forms and functions of two or more underlying norms (Raz 1986: 168). For example, the right to marry can derive from the constitutionally protected liberty to marry.

Some legal systems are characterized by the doctrine of precedent, which holds that court decisions bind lower courts and future courts to reach similar results. This practice is referred to as stare decisis. It is common in common law legal systems, but less common in civil law systems.