Starting with law: An overview of the law
Starting with law: An overview of the law

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Starting with law: An overview of the law

2.3 Public and private law

Public law involves the state or government in some way. There are three main types of law that fall into this category.

  1. Constitutional law: this controls how the government operates and is used to resolve any disputes over constitutional matters, for example, who is entitled to vote.

  2. Administrative law: this controls how Ministers of State and public bodies should operate and make decisions. An important part of administrative law is a type of court action known as judicial review.

  3. Criminal law: this also comes under the heading of public law because it involves the state. Criminal law is part of public law because a crime is regarded as an action against society and the state as a whole.

Private law concerns the smooth running of society and covers areas such as work, business dealings, education and everyday life. There are many different areas of law that fall under the heading of private law. Examples include employment law, the law of tort and the law of succession.

Using the knowledge gained from your studies so far you will now try to identify what laws may have been broken in the following Y166 family example.

Activity 1: The classification of law

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Read the information in the box below and, looking back over Section 2, answer the questions that follow.

The Y166 family

Catherine's day

Catherine Taylor drives to work every day. One morning she is late for work and drives at 40 mph in a 30 mph speed limit. At work in the superstore, she has to deal with a number of customer complaints. One of those complaints is from a customer who bought a washing machine a few days ago. It was plumbed in by employees of the store, which is standard practice. However, the first time the customer used the machine it flooded their kitchen causing damage to the floor and some new kitchen cupboards.

  • What laws may have been broken?

  • What rights and responsibilities can be identified?


When Catherine drives at 40 mph in a 30 mph zone, she is speeding (and liable to have points put on her driving licence and a fine if found guilty of the offence). Speeding is a criminal law offence. Laws on speeding are created to provide a safe environment for both road users and pedestrians. One of the reasons why speeding is punished is deterrence, to prevent people from breaking the speed limit and causing road traffic accidents.

When Catherine deals with the complaint about the washing machine she is dealing with a civil law matter. On selling the machine, the superstore entered into a contract with the customer. That the machine would work properly was part of that contract. The machine was plumbed in by employees of the store. Again, as part of the contract, the employees should have done this properly and be qualified and trained to do this. As the washing machine has flooded the kitchen there appears to be a fault. As this is a new machine the superstore could be held liable for breaching the contract. If they have breached the contract then they may also be liable for any damage that has resulted from the breakdown of the washing machine.

In both these examples rights and responsibilities can be identified. When driving, Catherine has a responsibility to other road users. She should drive in a manner that complies with the law. She also has the right to expect that other road users will drive in a manner that complies with the law. The superstore, when selling the washing machine, has the responsibility to ensure that the machine matches the description they gave and that it works properly. The customer has a right to expect the machine to work properly. They can complain when the machine doesn't work and seek a remedy, such as a replacement machine or the repair of the machine.

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