Branches of law

Among branches of law, two major fields can be distinguished: private law and public law. The difference between these two branches lies mainly in the parties of the legal relationship in question.

Private law signifies rules that regulate the relationships between private individuals (subjects of law who are, legally speaking, in an equal situation; for example, the legal relationship between a buyer and a seller, where both parties have certain rights and obligations). Private law covers civil law, commercial law, international private law as well as intellectual property (such as copyright, patent law).

Public law, on the other hand, consists in rules where one party is the state, who participates in the legal relationship from a position of strength – thereby effecting its power. Public law also signifies principles that serve as a basis for the structure of the state and the relationships between the state and the citizens. In addition to constitutional law, public law also covers administrative, financial, criminal and procedural law as well as international law.

Constitutional law

The characterisation of branches of law traditionally begins with constitutional law, which serves as a basis for other branches. Constitutional law regulates in general terms all legal relationships concerned with the state and law (separation of powers, essential features of the state, legislation). Constitutional law regulates the form of the public order and the administrative division of the territory; the status and role of the holder of the highest public authority, human rights; the primary elements of the public system (such as the parliament), their function, legal manner, structure, competence, and the bases and procedure of their formation (for example election procedure), as well as relations with the other elements of the public system (like the local government).

Due to its highest conclusive force, constitutional law also covers all constitutional legal provisions. Hence, constitutional law encompasses principles regulated by the constitution that are binding to each and every person. Constitutional rules also include all those legal provisions that regulate the appointment or election of higher national officials. Legislative drafting and the implementation of law are also subject to constitutional law. The number and nature of constitutional rules differ by country and are largely dependent on the form of government of the state.

Civil law

Civil law forms the bulk of private law. Estonia’s system of civil law is built on the principle of Pandects, which divides all provisions of the civil law into five parts: general part of civil law, family law, property law, law of succession and law of obligations. The system of Pandects itself is derived from the law of Ancient Rome.

The general part of civil law (General Part of the Civil Code Act) regulates the general principles of civil law. The general part of civil law is applicable as the general part of family and property law, law of succession, law of obligations, and the Commercial Code. The General Part of the Civil Code Act regulates persons (legal and natural persons), objects, transactions, representation, terms and due dates, enforcement and protection of civil rights.

Family law (Family Law Act) regulates all relationships concerned with family and marriage (such as entering into a contract of marriage, the mutual obligations between spouses, obligations toward one’s children, etc.).

Law of succession (Law of Succession Act) covers all relationships that concern succession, successors and bequeathers.

Law of obligations (Law of Obligations Act) consists in the general part and the special part and regulates everything related to obligations that result in the liability to an act or omission on the part of one person (debtor) to another (creditor), as well as the right of the creditor to demand that the debtor discharge the liability. The Law of Obligations Act that recently came into effect also regulates non-contractual relationships (such as a public promise to pay).

Property law (Law of Property Act) regulates real rights, their content, creation and extinguishment.

Administrative law

Administrative law regulates the activity of public authorities, the procedure of their formation, their powers, relationships with citizens, liability for violating administrative law, etc. Administrative matters are to be resolved pursuant to administrative procedure in administrative court. Complaints and protests concerning an order, directive, prescript or legislation issued under public law by an institution, official or another person performing public administrative functions in order to regulate an individual case are to be resolved in administrative court. Administrative proceedings can also be commenced with regard to the activity, failure to act or delayed action of an institution, official or another person performing public administrative functions under public law (e.g. the failure to act by the police in a certain situation).

Penal law

The penal law dictates which actions are to be regarded as offences and what the punishments for these actions are; in other words, the penal law determines the range of social relationships that stand under state protection and the violation of which results in punishment. Since 1 September 2002, a uniform penal law in the form of the Penal Code has been in effect in Estonia. The Penal Code is divided into the general and special part.

The General Part of the Penal Code provides the general bases for the punishability of an action and is divided into three main parts: doctrine on penal law, doctrine on criminal offence, and doctrine on punishment. The general part consists in seven chapters. The first chapter covers the general provisions, the second chapters deals with an offence, and chapters three to seven deal with punishment.

The special part provides the descriptions of specific punishable offences and their punishments. The special part defines the necessary elements of an offence (the necessary elements of an offence in subsection 12 (1) of the Penal Code consist in the description of a punishable offence provided for in the special part of this Code or in another Act).

Procedural law

Procedural law determines the rules of court procedure. Procedural law ensures legal security and precludes arbitrary acts by court. The rules of procedural law are generally quite complicated and must be observed very carefully to protect administration of justice from arbitrary acts by court, as well as to ensure that one of the litigating parties does not get an unfair advantage over the other during the proceedings. A significant violation of procedural rules may for instance result in the nullification of a court judgement.

Criminal procedural law is related to penal law. Criminal procedural law regulates the activity of investigation authorities, prosecuting authority and the court in legislative proceedings in criminal matters. The aim of criminal proceedings is to guarantee that the offenders get an appropriate punishment and no innocent person is convicted.

Civil procedural law is related to civil law and its sub-branches. Civil legal proceedings regulate the rules of resolving civil matters, the activity of court and litigating parties that is necessary for protecting the rights of citizens.

The rules of civil procedural law determine the rights and obligations of judicial bodies and regulate the relationships between litigating parties during the proceedings, as well as the activity of notarial and arbitration bodies (commercial courts that only deal with commercial matters).

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Compiled by: Ministry of Justice