What Are Legal Rights?


Law is the set of rules that governs behavior in social, economic and governmental systems. This includes state-enforced laws (statutes, regulations, decrees, or precedent) and privately created contracts that are enforceable through court or arbitration proceedings.

Legal rights are a normative category of jurisprudence that encompasses a broad spectrum of legal interests and principles, including civil and human rights. These include freedom of speech, assembly and association; the right to privacy; the right to a fair trial; the right to be informed; the right to due process and judicial review; and the right to a redress of grievances.

Generally speaking, rights vary in stringency and weight, with legal doctrines governing the extent to which they can be upheld and tempered in certain situations. This is a matter of normative jurisprudence, political and constitutional theory, and judicial practice.

According to the Interest Theory, a legal right is a claim-right that protects or furthers an individual’s interest. This is opposed to Will Theorists, who argue that a right is a power to act or an immunity from harm that is in the service of the individual’s interest.

The Interest Theory fits with Hohfeldian privileges, which entail a measure of normative control over one’s actions and powers (Hart 1982: 183; 1983: 35). It also relates to Hohfeldian liberties, which function to make right-holders “small-scale sovereigns” over certain domains by providing a free choice as to how they may or must exercise their rights.