What is substantive law?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Substantive law is the aspect of law that defines and regulates the rights of individuals and legal entities. It is one of the two main categories within the law with procedural law being the other. Substantive law takes into account what is right and wrong, and embodies the idea that committing a wrong will result in some type of penalty against the wrongdoer as described under the law. Substantive law encompasses all areas of torts, contract law, real property, constitutional law, family law, wills and estates, etc.

Substantive Law and Lawsuits

As the name suggests, the category of substantive law deals with the substance of a case and provides the elements for the specific area of law to either bring a lawsuit against someone or defend a person from a lawsuit. For example, the substantive law for a negligence claim is comprised of four essential elements. The four essential elements of a negligence claim are duty to protect, failing to exercise a reasonable standard of care, proximate cause, and actual injury. State laws will dictate the extent and nature of the four negligence elements.

By way of a further example, motor vehicle accidents are the basis of many motor vehicle lawsuits. Motor vehicle codes could vary greatly depending on the state, as could the duty of a driver, such as not being permitted to making a U-turn. Drivers in some states are permitted to make these types of turns while in others, these turns may be viewed as a breach of the driver’s duty to other drivers on the road. However, all states will be consistent in that a plaintiff must prove the presence of all four elements to be successful in pursuing and winning a negligence lawsuit.

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How Procedural Law and Substantive Law Work Together

The procedural system provides the means for applying substantive law to real life disputes. By way of example, the court sets rules for how a judge or jury will evaluate evidence in a negligence action when examining the four elements presented by the plaintiff. Substantive law provides the elements of the case to show the possibility of what is right and wrong, and procedural law defines the burden of proof by which the plaintiff needs to prove those elements to the jury. Substantive law and procedural law work hand in hand to move cases forward.

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