Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Overview of the Legal System

March 28, 2021

The legal system is a complex set of rules and regulations that has developed in response to the needs of society. Laws prescribe proper behavior in society; they sanction acceptable behavior and prohibit unacceptable behavior. Nurses must have a basic understanding of the legal system, which serves both to mandate and to protect. The law assigns fundamental legal duties and also provides protection for all members of the health care system.

The two primary categories of law are criminal and civil (Box 2-1). Matters related to criminal law are those that involve the needs of the public. Cases that concern matters of criminal law are charged by agents that represent either the federal or the state government. Civil cases are between individuals. The charges involved in a civil matter are brought by an individual or agency. An important note is that some degree of overlap may exist with the cases. For example, a criminal matter may result in individuals filing a civil lawsuit. The penalties that result from the cases also differ. Criminal cases are resolved with a finding of guilt or innocence. The penalty may involve fines, incar­ceration, or a combination of the two. Civil matters conclude with a determination of accountability or innocence. Monetary settlements are assigned based on the type of liability assessed. Civil law and criminal law are both established in one of two ways: (1) federal, state, and local governments develop statutory law; and (2) common law, or case law, evolves in response to specific legal questions that come before the court and usually follows precedent (previous rulings on an issue).

Box 2-1 Characteristics of Criminal and Civil Law


  • Conduct at issue is offensive to society in general.
  • Conduct at issue is detrimental to society as a whole.
  • The law involves public offenses (such as robbery, murder, assault).
  • The law’s purpose is to punish for the crime and deter and prevent further crimes.


  • Conduct at issue violates a person’s rights.
  • Conduct at issue is detrimental to that individual.
  • The law involves an offense that is against an individual.
  • The law’s purpose is to make the aggrieved person whole again, to restore the person to where he or she was.