What Is a Legal Right?


Law is a body of socially established rules that regulate people’s relations with each other and with private property. It includes such areas as contracts, torts, homicide, and intellectual property. Those who break the law, such as a murderer or a fraudster, may be subject to punishments ranging from fines to prison time. The legal system also protects citizens’ civil rights, and it ensures that they are treated fairly by government officials or private companies.

A legal right is one of law’s most basic and pervasive building blocks. This entry elucidates features common to all legal rights, as well as the particular features that characterize some of the most important types of legal rights.

Some legal philosophers contend that rights function as a sort of Hohfeldian privilege, conferring options for how right-holders can or should act and exercising powers over certain domains (MacCormick 1977: 163). Other philosophers, such as Joel Feinberg and Stephen Darwall, favor a more restrictive theory of rights, sometimes called the demand theory. It emphasizes that legal rights are typically for or in some sense entitle claim-holders (Feinberg 1970: 18-19).

The authority of a court to decide cases involving a specific area, such as a city or state. It is contrasted with venue, which refers to the geographic region within which a court has jurisdiction to hear a case.

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