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What is Private Law?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Private law is the branch of law that governs individuals' relationships with each other. It is distinct from public law, which relates to an individual's obligations to the state and to society as a whole. Private law governs tort liability as well as contracts cases.

In the United States system of law, laws are divided into public laws and private laws. Criminal law is considered public law. If a person breaks a criminal law, that person is subject to sanctions imposed by the state or federal government. When criminal law is broken, the victim does not need to press charges in most cases; a prosecutor can prosecute a crime with or without the explicit consent of the victim. In other words, the prosecutor is charged with enforcing the public law, and penalties are imposed in order to help enforce those public laws and maintain order in society.

In the private law system, the laws are enforced by individual people who bring lawsuits against violators. The government does not prosecute violations of private law, and a person cannot be sent to jail for violating private laws. The penalties associated with private laws are normally monetary.

The tort law system is governed by private laws. A tort is an act that hurts someone. The private law system imposes a legal duty not to commit torts, and allows a person to recover damages for such an injury. If a person is injured by someone else's negligent or intentional actions, the person can sue under tort law.

In some cases, an action can violate both public and private laws. For example, if a person has a car accident and injures someone while driving drunk, this is a violation of public law related to driving under the influence (DUI). It is also a violation of a private law that imposes a legal duty not to injure others.

The drunk driver can be prosecuted in criminal court and subject to criminal penalties. He can also be sued, and the victim of the accident can be awarded damages. The right to damages and the cause of action brought in tort are grounded in private laws.

Contract law is another form of private law. Under the contract law system, private promises made between two parties are legally enforced by a court of law. The court enforces those promises if the contract was made in accordance with private laws, such as specificity of the contract terms and conditions.

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Discussion Comments

By SailorJerry — On Jun 10, 2011

@EdRick - Good question! I think that the private law vs. public law division is similar but not identical to civil vs. criminal. Private law includes some areas not usually considered to be civil law--labor and employment law, commercial law, etc.

But I'm not quite sure. I haven't heard the term "private law" before.

By EdRick — On Jun 08, 2011

Is the difference between public law vs private law the same as the difference between criminal law and civil law? That is, would a case involving private law always be a civil case? Or is there some slight different between the two kinds of categories, so that they don't overlap perfectly?

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