The law is a set of rules for society, designed to protect basic rights and freedoms, and to treat everyone fairly. These rules can be divided into two basic categories: public law and private law.
Public law deals with matters that affect society as a whole. It includes areas of the law that are known as criminal, constitutional and administrative law. These are the laws that deal with the relationship between the individual and the state, or among jurisdictions. For example, if someone breaks a criminal law, it is regarded as a wrong against society as a whole, and the state takes steps to prosecute the offender.
Private law, on the other hand, deals with the relationships between individuals in society and is used primarily to settle private disputes. Private law deals with such matters as contracts, property ownership, the rights and obligations of family members, and damage to one’s person or property caused by others. When one individual sues another over some private dispute, this is a matter for private law. Private suits are also called “civil” suits.
Of course, there is more to Canada’s system of law and justice than the laws themselves. Laws must be enforced, interpreted and applied if they are to be effective, and the legal system includes a number of institutions to carry out these duties. For example, we have police forces to ensure that the law is enforced. We have courts to interpret both private and public laws in specific cases, and to impose remedies, “sanctions” or penalties. Persons found guilty by a court of a criminal act can, for example, be discharged, placed on probation, or sentenced to a fine or a period of imprisonment. Persons who violate rules of private law, such as failing to perform a contract, may be ordered to pay compensation and their property or salaries may be seized if they refuse to pay.
To understand Canada’s legal system, we need to look at the way law is applied in practice — at what happens to a person who violates a law. But first, we should examine our legal inheritance: just where did “the law” come from?