A natural person is legally defined as a living human being. This definition is meant to set a natural person apart from a legal person, which is a group of people acting in a unified, often commercial enterprise but are considered by law to be acting as a single fictional or virtual individual. Legal persons are also known by the terms artificial and juristic persons. Companies, trusts, partnerships and similar entities are considered legal persons. The distinction between natural and legal persons is found in most systems of law.
The natural person and the legal person are entitled to many similar rights as well as duties. Both may sue, be sued and sign contracts. Certain rights apply only to natural persons, such as the United States' Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. In many countries, citizens are guaranteed a set of basic rights, including life, liberty, equality before the law and the right to vote in elections. Obviously, only natural persons can marry, vote and hold public office. Most countries recognize an individual’s full rights as a natural person when he or she reaches the age of 18.
In the U.S. and other countries, both natural and legal persons have the right to free speech. While free speech is a cherished right for natural persons, it is also important for legal persons. This allows legal entities such as newspapers to print stories and opinions that might not always be to the government’s liking. Free expression has its limits for natural and legal persons; both can be sued for defamation and libel.
Under most national legal systems, both natural persons and legal persons are entitled to due process. A government cannot seize an individual’s or company’s property without due process, a right guaranteed in the U.S. by the 14th Amendment. This right was first established for legal entities in the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Indeed, it was the powerful railroad tycoons of the 19th century who helped push for companies to be allowed some of the same rights as private citizens.
The rights of legal persons are limited in other ways. In many countries, legal persons are not extended the same range of human rights as natural persons. One reason for this is that corporations typically have more resources and often are better able to defend their rights than private citizens. Indeed, critics say corporations have long used their designation as legal persons to protect themselves from government regulation and accountability. The debate about which rights corporations and other legal persons can hold continues throughout the world.