Legal duties are duties imposed by formal legal rules. Legal duties are distinct from moral or implied duties, since when a legal duty is violated, there may be consequences under the law. A legal duty is usually imposed by some type of formal written law, whether it is judge made case law, or statutes, or laws made by state or federal legislatures.
Certain moral duties or things that most people believe are proper to do are not necessarily considered legal duties. For example, in most jurisdictions, there is no legal duty to provide aid or care to another person in need. While there is no general duty to aid, however, if one party creates a situation that puts another in peril, then the law may at that point impose a legal duty upon the party who created the harm to help the person in danger.
Legal duties are generally created in order to maintain order in a society, and/or to achieve the ends that the lawmakers wish to achieve. For example, the law imposes a legal duty to refrain from harming another person. The law also imposes a legal duty to pay taxes, to register for selective service in the military, to refrain from drinking and driving, and use a minimum standard of honesty in business dealings with other people.
When a person breaches a legal duty, or falls short of fulfilling the duties that the law imposes, there are usually some types of consequences. There may be criminal sanctions associated with violating legal duties. There may also be civil penalties assessed if someone sues for the violation of a legal duty.
For example, certain legal duties carry with them the potential to be subject to criminal sanctions if a person fails to fulfill the duty. If a person violates a legal duty not to kill another person, he will be prosecuted and potentially imprisoned or even put to death for the breach of the legal duty. The government must prove he violated this legal duty, and the legal duty must be constitutional, in order for the government to subject him to these types of sanctions.
If a person violates a legal duty, he may also face civil penalties. For example, when one party invites another into his home, the invited guest has a special status under the law as an invitee. The property owner has a legal duty to take care in ensuring the health and safety of invitees. If there is a hazardous situation at on the property, and breaches that legal duty of care, the person who is injured as a result of the breach of legal duty can sue in civil court, and the homeowner may have to pay a monetary penalty to the injured guest as a result of the breach of legal duties.