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What Is the Difference Between Public Law and Private Law?

Constitutional law is an example of public law.
Public law protects society and private law protects individuals.
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  • Written By: Nicole Long
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2014
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There are several differences between public law and private law. The main difference is that public law protects society as a whole and private law governs interactions between individuals or groups. Public law is typically determined and enforced by government agencies, whereas the government typically removes itself from the enforcement of private law.

Public law is divided into several areas overseeing the interaction between citizens or corporations and the government. These areas include constitutional law, administrative law, and criminal law. Each area of public law governs specific areas of societal interactions and the remedies available for violations of those laws.

Constitutional law deals with laws as contained in a country’s written constitution or, in some cases, an unwritten constitution related to tradition and custom. These laws are often referred to as the “law of the land” and set the precedent for other laws and regulations. They seek to define the rights of citizens in relation to the state and also help dictate the interactions of various branches of the government.

Administrative law is often considered both public law and private law. In some aspects, administrative law provides guidance for the operation of government entities within a nation and regarding international law. Administrative law can also be seen as both public law and private law because it does straddle the line and deal with some regulations and laws governing civil law.

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Criminal law is perhaps the most well-known form of both public law and private law. This branch of public law deals with maintaining a peaceful society. Criminal law applies to individuals and corporations, and laws and regulations found throughout outline specific violations and set penalties for those violations. Crimes dealt with under criminal law include theft, violent crimes, and corporate crimes, such as fraud.

Perhaps the most common example of private law is civil law. This branch of law seeks to help parties, where typically neither is the government, settle personal disputes. Common civil law cases involve contract disputes, bankruptcy, violations regarding consumer protection, and other private matters, such as divorces and child custody. These cases are tried without the interference of the government even though the legislative branch or judicial branch may have had a hand in drafting and adopting the laws involved. Some countries may refer to private law as common law, including portions of the United States and Canada.

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What is fascinating is the common law forms the basis of the American civil judicial system, yet has been modified, altered and added to so much that it is barely recognizable. However, people taking bar exams throughout the nation have to be schooled in common law, the concepts of which are only vaguely covered in law school.

For example, a burglary under common law is defined breaking and entering a house of another at night with the intention of committing a felony therein. Burglary in most states is defined in much broader terms -- it might still be burglary, for example, if one breaks into a business during the daytime with the intent of committing a felony or misdemeanor.

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