How does public law protect and uphold the rights of citizens?Posted on: November 28, 2022
Public law affects how each and every one of us goes about our daily lives, in ways we are likely both conscious and unconscious of. While numerous aspects of its legal jurisdictions are already deeply embedded in the systems and structures that govern our lives, public law does, of course, change over time – and the last several years have borne witness to some particularly seismic events.
Brexit, for example, will significantly impact United Kingdom (UK) citizens for years to come. As domestic legislation and litigation seeks to plug the gap left by European Union (EU) law, potential changes – from immigration policy to trade to the Withdrawal Agreement and what that could mean for equality – will have important ramifications for the public. Another landmark event was the introduction of the sweeping restrictions on civil liberties during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are countless further examples, from unlawful deportations of UK residents that spawn mass appeals for case reviews and legislative changes, to issues of data protection and the right the public have to know who is doing what with their information.
It’s a complex, far-reaching division of the legal system that has serious consequences for lives and livelihoods. Navigating this changeable landscape and protecting the fundamental rights of the public is, therefore, critical.
What is public law in the UK?
Public bodies – such as central government and local governments – must obey the law, and the type of law that governs them is known as public law.
Further examples of public bodies and public authorities include:
- local authorities, such as education authorities, housing departments and social services
- government departments, ministers and agencies
- health authorities, such as the National Health Service (NHS)
- regulatory and supervisory bodies, such as the General Medical Council (GMC).
As its name suggests, public law is concerned with issues that impact the public or society as a whole. It aims to ensure that public bodies act in lawful, fair, compatible and rational manners in relation to the human rights that their actions affect, and that misuses of power, rights and decision-making do not occur.
The Public Law Project explains how the UK’s constitutional separation of powers model exists to prevent the abuse of power. The model involves a series of checks and balances between three separate entities: executive government, who possess the power to put law into action; parliament, who possess the power to change law and make law; and the judiciary, who possess the power to make judgements on law.
What are some examples of public laws?
Public law is an umbrella term that comprises the following types of law:
- Tax law focuses on regulating the different types of taxes and the systems through which tax is collected.
- Administrative law governs interactions between the public and public bodies to protect the interests of citizens.
- Criminal law concerns what is classified as crime and what punishments are appropriate for those who commit crimes.
- Constitutional law defines the roles, structures and powers of entities within a state, such as parliament.
What happens when a public body acts in an unlawful way? Those affected by the unlawful actions, behaviours or decisions have a number of options available to them, such as:
- raising a complaint via an Ombudsmen or the complaints procedure of a specific public body
- requesting a judicial review, where a court case is held and a decision is made by a judge as to whether there was unlawful conduct
- seeking a review of the decision from the public body
- pursuing a right of appeal at a tribunal, if relevant.
Seeking legal advice from public law solicitors or public law teams may be beneficial in such situations.
What is the difference between public law and private law?
Whereas public law governs and regulates the legal system itself, private law concerns itself with issues between two or more individuals. Common areas within private law – also known as civil law or common law – include property law, family law, contract law, commercial law and tort law.
A private company may, however, be subjected to judicial review claims and processes if it is tasked with undertaking functions that have a “public law flavour”, and are subject to regulatory authority functions. A prime example of this would be a privately run care home that is under investigation for maltreatment or neglect of its patients, as this directly contravenes basic human rights and is in the public interest.
Human rights law
The Human Rights Act 1998 lays out the basic rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to. Incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) international human rights treaty into domestic British law, the Act came into force in the UK in October 2000.
The Act has three main aims: allowing individuals to seek justice through the British court system if a right has been breached; requiring public bodies to respect rights; and ensuring that any new laws that are created or amended are in compatible with existing rights.
There are numerous rights contained within the Act. They include:
- the right to life
- freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
- freedom from slavery and forced labour
- the right to liberty and security
- the right to a fair trial
- freedom of thought, belief and religion
- freedom of expression
- the right to education
- the right to participate in free elections.
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