Well, Is It?
1. Laws are rules or standards by which humans intend to regulate, encourage or punish some aspect of human behavior. Law also refers to an entire system of government, rights and obligations and an institutionalized manner of resolving disputes.
2. Lawyers will often be asked a question by a client that starts: “Is it legal to . . . ?” Isn’t it against the law to . . ?” usually followed by a complaint about the behavior of a neighbor, co-worker, ex-wife or party to a contract. So, what does it mean to be “against the law?” Usually, they are asking if a written law prohibits the behavior, but that is not the only source of law. If there is a contract involved, the lawyer must first look to the written agreement of the parties to see if the act is prohibited by the express terms of the contract. Then the client may allege a breach of contract, which is a private wrong between the parties.
3. Perhaps your client’s neighbor is building a fence through their petunia patch. Your client has called the police saying the neighbor is “trespassing.” The policeman has told your client that it’s “a civil matter” that must be resolved in court between the two parties (unless the neighbor bonks your client on the head with a fence post.) In the case of the fence, a matter of real estate law, the lawyer will have to consult with a surveyor, purchase a title report, look at public records of deeds and boundary line agreements, interview neighbors, apply a common law theory of “adverse possession” and consider a lawsuit to “quiet title” based on a “statute of limitations” before the answer may be clear.
4. Perhaps the neighbor is building a pig farm next to your client’s Zen garden. There might be a land use and development statute, ordinance or zoning regulation that prevents that use. The use may be prohibited by a recorded covenant that sets rules for the subdivision that can bind future owners. There also may be a common law nuisance action found by reading cases and then a trip to court to obtain a restraining order after posting a bond.
5. Your client has been attacked by the neighbor’s developmentally disabled child and his pet pit bull, causing personal injury and property damage. You must now look up case law regarding negligence. If the neighbor knows of the dangerous propensities of child and dog he may be negligent if he has not used reasonable care to prevent such an attack. There may be a statute that regulates dangerous animals, which may help you show evidence of negligence. If your client throws a fence post at the dog and instead the neighbor’s window is broken, who is liable for the cost of repair? Will you client receive a counterclaim for property damage and assault?
6. The answer to any one of these scenarios may be found with reference to overlapping statutes, contracts, regulatory rules and common law legal principles. This is why you need a lawyer to help navigate through these matters to arrive at a resolution in an adversarial legal system.