Public Law vs Private Law: Legal Definition, Scope, Objectives and Enforcement

What is the Difference between Public Law vs Private Law?

Public law governs the relationship between individuals and the state and the relationships among state entities, while private law focuses on the legal relationships between private individuals or entities.

The difference between public law vs private law is fundamental in the vast realm of legal studies. Both branches have their principles, purposes, and application areas.

Definition and Overview

This post delves deep into the nuances of public and private law, highlighting their distinctions and providing real-world examples.

Public Law: Public law pertains to the rules and principles governing the relationships between individuals and the state and the relationships between different branches of the state itself.

It is concerned with the constitution and functioning of the state and its various organs. Public law ensures that these entities operate within their legal boundaries and respect the rights of citizens.

Private Law: Private law, on the other hand, deals with disputes between private individuals or entities. It focuses on individuals’ rights and obligations in relation to one another. Private law primarily concerns resolving conflicts and ensuring fairness in personal and business relationships.

Public Law vs Private Law - difference between private and public law

Key Areas of Focus in the Public and Private Law Debate

Public Law includes:

  • Constitutional Law: Governs the fundamental principles by which the government exercises its authority.
  • Administrative Law: Concerns public administration and the operation of government agencies.
  • Criminal Law: Addresses offences against the public order and provides for their punishment.
  • Tax Law: Governs the taxation process and disputes related to it.

Private Law encompasses:

  • Contract Law: Deals with agreements between individuals or entities and their obligations.
  • Tort Law: Addresses civil wrongs and provides remedies for them.
  • Property Law: Concerns the ownership and use of property, both real and personal.
  • Family Law: Governs relationships within families, including marriage, divorce, and child custody.

Purpose and Objectives of Public and Private Law

Public Law: The primary objective of public law is to regulate the structure and operations of the government and ensure that it works within the confines of the Constitution. It aims to protect individual rights against potential abuses by the state and maintain public order.

Private Law: Private law seeks to resolve disputes between private parties and ensure justice is served. It aims to provide remedies to aggrieved parties and establish a framework for personal and business interactions.

Enforcement: Public Law vs Private Law

Public Law: Violations of public law often result in penalties the state imposes. For instance, breaking criminal law can lead to imprisonment, fines, or community service.

Private Law: Breaches in private law typically lead to civil remedies, such as damages or specific performance. The aggrieved party usually initiates legal proceedings to seek redress.

The difference between public law and private law

AspectPublic LawPrivate Law
ScopeGoverns the relationship between the state and individuals/entities or state-to-state relations.Regulates disputes between private individuals/entities.
Parties InvolvedInvolves the government or a public authority as one of the parties.Involves private individuals, corporations, or entities as the parties.
EnforcementPublic law is enforced by the state through the legal system.Private law is enforced by individuals or entities through legal action.
Primary ConcernConcerned with the public interest, individual rights, and government actions.Focuses on the protection of private rights, obligations, and contractual agreements.
ExamplesConstitutional law, administrative law, criminal law, tax law, and international law.Contract law, property law, tort law, family law, and business law.
Nature of DisputesOften involves issues of constitutional rights, government regulations, or criminal offenses.Typically involves contract disputes, personal injury claims, property disputes, and family matters.
Initiation of Legal ActionCan be initiated by government agencies, the state, or individuals affected by government actions.Initiated by private individuals/entities when their rights or interests are violated.
Public InterestOften serves the public interest and the protection of individual rights against state overreach.Primarily serves private interests and the resolution of private disputes.
Legal RemediesTypically involves remedies such as injunctions, declaratory judgments, or criminal penalties.Remedies may include damages, specific performance, or injunctions to enforce private rights and obligations.
Legal ProceedingsMay involve government-initiated legal actions (e.g., criminal prosecution) or lawsuits against government agencies (e.g., administrative appeals).Typically involves civil lawsuits between private parties, such as breach of contract cases or personal injury lawsuits.
Difference between Public Law and Private Law (Public Law vs Private Law)

Real-world Examples of Public and Private Law

Public Law:

  • A case challenging the constitutionality of a new law.
  • A citizen filing a complaint against a government agency for not providing due services.

Private Law:

Intersections and Overlaps between Public and Private Law

While public and private law are distinct, they often intersect. For instance, a criminal case (public law) might lead to a civil lawsuit (private law) if the victim seeks damages. Similarly, regulations (public law) can dictate the terms of contracts (private law).

How Do Public Health And Safety Regulations Relate To Public Law?

Public health and safety regulations are facets of public law, established by governments to protect citizens’ well-being. They set standards, enforceable by law, to prevent harm and ensure communal welfare. Violations can lead to penalties, emphasizing the state’s role in upholding societal health and safety interests.

How Does The Government Enforce Public Law?

The government enforces public law through regulatory agencies, law enforcement bodies, and the judiciary. Violations can result in penalties, such as fines or imprisonment. Administrative actions, legal proceedings, and policy implementations are tools to ensure compliance with laws and protect the public’s rights and interests.

Why Is Criminal Law Considered A Subset Of Public Law?

Criminal law is a subset of public law because it governs offences against the collective societal order. It delineates actions deemed harmful to society, with the state prosecuting offenders on behalf of the public. The state’s involvement underscores its role in maintaining public order and protecting citizens from harm.

Can A Single Legal Issue Transition From Being A Private Law Matter To A Public Law Matter?

The distinction between public and private law is often not rigid, and certain situations can blur the lines.

For instance, a dispute between two individuals over property rights (a private law matter) might escalate to involve violations of zoning regulations or environmental laws, bringing it into the realm of public law.

Similarly, a breach of contract between two parties could lead to fraudulent activities that attract criminal sanctions, transitioning the matter from private to public law.

Such overlaps highlight the interconnectedness of legal categories and underscore the importance of understanding the broader implications of legal actions.

While private law focuses on individual rights and obligations, public law’s involvement often arises when there’s a broader societal interest or state concern.


Understanding the distinction between public and private law is essential for navigating the legal landscape.

While both branches serve to uphold justice and order in society, they do so from different angles and with different tools.

Recognising these differences can provide clarity in various legal scenarios, whether you are a legal professional, a student, or just a curious individual.

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