If someone trespasses, meaning they go into a space that they are not allowed to go into, for example, land that belongs to another person, then the other person can complain about that action. For example if you drove to my house in a car and parked it in my driveway without my permission, and left it there, I could sue you in court in most countries and get the judge to order you to take the car away. Leaving your car on my land might also be a crime against the state. In that case, the police could charge you with an offence of “trespassing”.
The action of coming onto another person’s land without permission can therefore be, at the same time, both a private problem and a public problem. The government has decided, at some stage, that the criminal law should step in and stop people interfering with each other’s enjoyment of their land. Trespass is seen not just as a private problem between two people, but as a public problem that affects the entire community. The government has decided to protect people’s rights over their land, and not just leave that to those people to do.
The things that a country’s government decides should and should not become a matter of public interest reveal things about the value system that the people in that country have. The trespass on land example shows that Western societies believe in private ownership of land and the right to exclude others from using privately owned land. This right is not absolute. Most governments have a right to take over private land for important public purposes, which is called “compulsory acquisition” or “eminent domain”, like building a nuclear waste dump in your front yard.
Imposing this right in areas where it hasn’t existed before also causes clashes with other people who have a more communal concept of life. For example, in the Andes region of South America, indigenous communities are protesting because the rights to water in rivers have been sold by governments to private companies, which prevents those communities continuing to use the water for their crops. You can read more about this problem on the Cultural Survival website.
Ultimately, the “public” versus “private” distinction is somewhat artificial, because the framework of laws in which all relationships exist is a public one. The main legal framework, the public one, defines how all of the private relationships work, all of the buying and selling transactions that occur every day, the marriages, the transfers of ownership of cars and land, and so on.
[This blog post was written by James Irving, business lawyer of Perth, Australia. Visit the Irving Law website to learn more about his legal practice. This post is not intended as legal advice for any person. Photo credit: No Trespassing sign at empty lot in February by Rutebaga, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and is used here under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.]