Classifications of Law

Updated: Sep 11

This article explains the three major classifications of law that every Vancouver Washington business should understand.

Every Washington business owner should understand how laws are classified at both the federal and state levels. Laws can be divided into three, general categories of comparison:

  1. Public vs. Private Laws

  2. Civil vs. Criminal Laws

  3. Substantive vs. Procedural Laws

Public vs. Private Laws

A public law is one which concerns individual citizens' relationship with their government(s). The U.S. Constitution is considered a public law, because its provisions, such as the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, apply only to situations where government action against private citizens is at issue. In other words, the First Amendment's provisions do not apply to lawsuits between two private citizens, only to lawsuits between private citizens and the government. Administrative laws, such as environmental regulations, are also public laws because they govern the relationship of private businesses with a government agency, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

"...the First Amendment's provisions do not apply to lawsuits between two private citizens...."

A private law is just the opposite. Private laws govern the legal relationships between two or more private citizens. For example, laws concerning how to handle a breach of contract issue between two private businesses, are considered private laws.

Civil vs. Criminal Laws

The main differences between civil and criminal laws are (1) the party who brings the case, and (2) the standard of proof required.

Civil laws allow individuals and businesses to bring lawsuits against parties who owe them monetary damages under the law, and/or who are required to cease some harmful behavior toward the plaintiff. To win a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the plaintiff wins as long as the weight of the evidence tips slightly more in their favor at the end of the case. I.e. slightly more than fifty percent of the evidence must weigh in the plaintiff's favor. Anyone can bring a lawsuit who has a monetary claim against another party.

"...slightly more than fifty percent of the evidence must weigh in the plaintiff's favor."

Criminal laws, on the other hand, pertain only to wrongs against the state. Which means that only the state has the option of bringing criminal charges, at the prosecutor's discretion. That is why every criminal case is titled, "State of __________ v. [The Defendant]." Private citizens can "press" charges, but ultimately a state prosecutor must decide whether to file charges or not. Additionally, because the consequences of a criminal case could ultimately end in imprisonment, as well as other harsh consequences, the standard of proof is much higher in a criminal case. The state must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury has even one reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime alleged, they must acquit.

"Criminal laws...pertain only to wrongs against the state."

Substantive vs. Procedural Laws

The difference between substantive and procedural laws is simple. It's the difference between why we're bringing a case, and how we go about bringing it.

Substantive laws are essentially what we're arguing about in a given case. For instance, in an auto accident case about negligence, the law of negligence is the substantive law. In a criminal case alleging first-degree murder, the law defining the elements of first-degree murder is the substantive law.

Procedural laws govern how to apply the substantive law. In the auto accident example, procedural law governs how to file a complaint, when the defendant must answer the complaint, and how to conduct depositions in the case. All of these procedural laws would help us apply the substantive law–negligence–to our case.


These three categories are not mutually exclusive, as there will always be overlap. For example, a criminal case involves public law, because the case is between a citizen and his government. But it also concerns private and substantive law, because of the underlying accusation (e.g. first-degree murder), and the procedural law that governs how the case proceeds (e.g. how and when to issue a warrant in the case).

If you have more legal questions about the classifications of law, contact In-house | On-site to speak with a Vancouver Washington attorney with knowledge of Vancouver, WA business law.

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