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What Is General Law?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated May 16, 2024
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General law is one of two universal legal categories or types of law common to any number of territories, countries, and nation states. Also known as public law or local law, laws of this type are characterized as applying to all residents and citizens of a particular area or district. Such laws are further characterized by unrestricted time, meaning general laws do not expire, nor do such laws apply only at certain times, in certain situations, or only to certain citizens or groups of citizens. Laws intended as general or public law are always in force, applicable to all citizens, and only change when legislative bodies modify the law.

When enacted, general law governs the relationship between a citizen and applicable governing bodies. Relationships involved in this area of law may cover a citizens’ relationship with local city or county municipalities; state agencies and governmental departments; or federal regulatory agencies, commissions, and governing bodies. A citizen’s responsibility for paying taxes, following rules of the road while driving, and the use of business licenses are each examples of relationships between citizens and government covered by general law. In contrast, private law, the other category of laws, governs the relationship between individual citizens. Family law covering situations such as divorce and adoption, inheritance law, and similar examples illustrate the concept of private law.

In terms of authority, acts and statutes that fall under general law only have as much power as the legislative body that enacts them. Laws governing residents or citizens of a specific district cannot assume more control over those individuals than constitutionally awarded to the enacting legislative body. For example, in the United States, state legislators do not have the authority to supersede federal legislators. As such, general laws enacted at the state level cannot supersede general federal laws. Similarly, such a law enacted in one state does not have authority over residents of another state, since legislators do not have authority to impose legislation on such residents.

One exception exists with regard to what citizen to government regulations are covered by general law. Most often, conflicts of law, even those directly relating to the relationship between citizen and government, are not considered part of this area of law. Rather, these laws encompass their own subcategory of law not otherwise covered by either general or private law. Even though conflicts of law may be directly linked to general law, this particular subset of laws is not universally categorized with typical general, public, or local law.

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Discussion Comments

By anon950730 — On May 12, 2014

General laws apply to counties, cities and towns. When one claims to be (or doesn't rebut the presumption of being) an inhabitant of the county, the law law clearly states that those are part of the body politic and corporate. Thus, the laws apply to those persons as they are a subset of the statutory entities called counties, cities and towns.

By KaBoom — On Dec 22, 2011

@strawCake - I think you're right about the police and fire departments. I think it's important to note, though, that off duty police officers and firefighters have to follow the rules of the road just like everyone else!

Anyway, I was pondering what I read in the article and I think one big different between general law and private law are the possible penalties for breaking those laws. If you break a general law, you are prosecuted by the state and you can go to jail or have to pay the government a fine.

In contrast, when you break a private law you're not usually prosecuted by the state. Instead, you can be sued by the other private citizen you've wronged by breaking the law. If you lose the case, you may have to pay damages to the person you've wronged, but you won't go to jail.

By strawCake — On Dec 21, 2011

I think it's interesting that even though general law is supposed to apply to all citizens equally, there are some exceptions. For example, massachusetts general laws regarding the rules of the road are the same for all private citizens all the time.

However, the police and the fire departments don't have to follow the rules of the road while they're on duty. If a fire truck is trying to get to the site of a fire, they can turn their sirens on and go faster than the speed limit and run red lights so they can get there faster.

I suppose this is because police and fire departments are government agencies.

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