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What is public law?

Public law is a significant area of legal practice governing the relationship between individuals and a public organisation. Below we discuss public law in more detail, exploring what it is, the types of public law and how it influences the organisations it regulates.

By Grant Longstaff. Published 10 July 2024.

Definition of public law

A public body, such as national and local governments, are required to obey the law. The area of law which governs these organisations is known as public law. It covers how people interact with various organisations, working to ensure people are treated fairly and prevent any abuse of power by a public body. Public law also shapes organisational structure and operation ensuring the various bodies act lawfully.

Public bodies extend far beyond government and can include areas such as education, healthcare, immigration, the police and prison services, the justice system, and regulatory bodies.

Public law vs private law

Private law regulates relationships between individuals and private entities. If you’re trying to distinguish between private and public law consider if the case affects one or two people or parties, or wider society. Private law often covers areas such as contracts law, property law, and corporation law for example. It’s also important to recognise public law and private law do not exist separately and, at times, can influence one another. Employment law for example could impact both an individual and a group of people.

Types of public law

With public law being such an integral part of the legal world, there are several branches of public law.

Constitutional law

A constitution is defined by the UK government as “the set of principles and rules by which a country is organised”. The British Constitution effectively forms the basis of our legal system, how our government operates and how they serve and protect us.

Administrative Law

Closely linked to constitutional law, administrative law focuses on how public organisations operate. All public bodies should operate fairly and reasonably, however administrative law can help query misuses of the law should they take place.

Other areas

Constitutional and administrative law are the cornerstones of public law and within these you also have areas such as criminal law, international law, financial law, education law, human rights law and many more.

Importance of public law

The importance of public law can’t be overstated. It exists to protect us, not only by ensuring there is law and order within society, but also by defending our rights as an individual. If there is an abuse of power by a public organisation then we have the legal right to challenge those abuses. It helps us hold governments and other public bodies accountable for their actions and can ultimately improve society for all.

Role of public law in the legal system

Public law plays a crucial role in shaping our legal system in several ways. It establishes legal boundaries within which the public must operate and, through criminal law and the justice system, prosecutes those who violate the rules.

We’ve also discussed how public law can help society hold those organisations who should represent our best interests to account when they transgress. These challenges can take a number of forms and range from raising a legal complaint with the public body to requesting a judicial review, a process whereby a judge - or judges – assess the legality of a public body.

There are many examples of judicial review in public law cases and have exposed wrongdoing in areas such as immigration, freedom of information and even Brexit. Some recent examples of successful judicial reviews include a supreme court ruling in 2019 which found the UK government’s attempt to force the “bedroom tax” on partners of people with severe disabilities was a breach of the Human Rights Act and, more recently, use of a “VIP lane” for PPE suppliers during the Covid-19 pandemic was labelled “Unlawful” and in breach of procurement rules outlined in the Public Contracts Regulations (2015).

Ultimately, public law is a vital part of our legal landscape and exists to ensure both governments and public organisations operate within set legal boundaries and help create a fairer society for all.

 

If you’re interested in how organisations operate then our LLM in Corporate Governance GradCG could be the perfect course for you.