What is the Law?

The law affects nearly every aspect of our lives every day. We have laws to deal with crimes like robbery and murder. And we have laws that govern activities like driving a car, getting a job, and getting married. Laws give us rules of conduct that protect everyone's rights.

The rule of law, freedom under the law, democratic principles, and respect for others form the foundations of Canada's legal heritage. Every Canadian should understand the law, and the ideas and principles behind it. This publication will help readers understand

  • what the law is;
  • where it comes from;
  • what it is for; and
  • how it operates.

Laws also balance individual rights with our obligations as members of society. For example, when a law gives a person a legal right to drive, it also makes it a duty for a driver to know how to drive and to follow the rules of the road.

Why we need laws

Laws are rules made by government that forbid certain actions and are enforced by the courts. Laws apply to everyone equally. If you break a law, you may have to pay a fine, pay for the damage you have done, or go to jail.

Our laws also recognize and protect basic individual rights and freedoms, such as liberty and equality.

Imagine the chaos – and the danger – if there were no laws. The strongest people would be in control and people would live in fear. Drivers could choose which side of the street to drive on and no one could stop them. Imagine trying to buy and sell goods if no one had to keep promises. Or trying to hold onto your personal property or even to keep yourself safe if there were no laws against robbery or assault.

Even in a well-ordered society, people disagree, and conflicts arise. The law provides a way to resolve disputes peacefully. If two people claim the same piece of property, rather than fight they turn to the law. The courts can decide who the real owner is and how to protect the owner's rights.

Laws help to ensure a safe and peaceful society. The Canadian legal system respects individual rights and ensures that our society is orderly. It applies the same law to everybody. This includes the police, governments and public officials. All of them must carry out their duties according to the law.

What other goals do laws achieve?

In Canada, laws also carry out social policies. Laws allow systems to be put in place for governments to provide, for example, 

Public law and private law

Laws can be divided into public law and private law.

Public law sets the rules for the relationship between the individual and society. If someone breaks a criminal law, it is seen as a wrong against society. It includes

  • criminal law, which deals with crimes and their punishments
  • constitutional law, which defines the relationship between various branches of government, as well as between federal and provincial governments; it also limits the exercise of governmental power over individuals through the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • administrative law, which deals with the actions and operations of government

If someone runs away from a store with unpaid goods, that's theft. It violates public law because it affects other people. If you back up your car into somebody's fence, you could be violating their right to enjoy their property. That falls under private law.

Private law sets the rules between individuals. It is also called civil law. Private law settles disputes among groups of people and compensates victims, as in the example of the fence. A civil case is an action that settles private disputes.

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