Property law is the area of law that governs the various forms of ownership and tenancy in real property (land as distinct from personal or movable possessions) and in personal property, within the common law legal system. In the civil law system, there is a division between movable and immovable property. Movable property roughly corresponds to personal property, while immovable property corresponds to real estate or real property, and the associated rights, and obligations thereon.
The concept, idea or philosophy of property underlies all property law. In some jurisdictions, historically all property was owned by the monarch and it devolved through feudal land tenure or other feudal systems of loyalty and fealty.
Though the Napoleonic code was among the first government acts of modern times to introduce the notion of absolute ownership into statute, protection of personal property rights was present in medieval Islamic law and jurisprudence, and in more feudalist forms in the common law courts of medieval and early modern England.
The word property, in everyday usage, refers to an object (or objects) owned by a person—a car, a book, or a cellphone—and the relationship the person has to it. In law, the concept acquires a more nuanced rendering. Factors to consider include the nature of the object, the relationship between the person and the object, the relationship between a number of people in relation to the object, and how the object is regarded within the prevailing political system. Most broadly and concisely, property in the legal sense refers to the rights of people in or over certain objects or things.
James Wilson, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1790 and 1791, undertook a survey of the philosophical grounds of American property law. He proceeds from two premises: “Every crime includes an injury: every injury includes a violation of a right.” (Lectures, III, ii.) The government's role in protecting property depends upon an idea of right. Wilson traces the history of property in his essay "On the History of Property." In his lecture, "Of the natural rights of individuals" (Lectures II, xii), he articulates related contemporary theory.
That theory was brought to a focus on the question of whether man exists for the sake of government, or government for the sake of man – a distinction which may derive from, or lead to, the question of natural and absolute rights, and whether property is one of them. While he doubts this is so, he nonetheless states: “In his unrelated state, man has a natural right to his property, to his character, to liberty, and to safety.” James Wilson asks whether “the primary and principal object in the institution of government… was… to acquire new rights by human establishment? Or was it, by a human establishment, to acquire a new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights….?” He indicates a preference for the latter.
In the opening sentence of "On the History of Property," he states quite clearly: “Property is the right or lawful power, which a person has to a thing.” He then divides the right into three degrees: possession, the lowest; possession and use; and, possession, use, and disposition – the highest. Further, he states: “Man is intended for action. Useful and skillful industry is the soul of an active life. But industry should have her just reward. That reward is property, for of useful and active industry, property is the natural result.” From this simple reasoning he is able to present the conclusion that exclusive, as opposed to communal property, is to be preferred. Wilson does, however, give a survey of communal property arrangements in history, not only in colonial Virginia but also ancient Sparta.
Non-legally recognized or documented property rights are known as informal property rights. These informal property rights are non-codified or documented, but recognized among local residents to varying degrees.
Different parties may claim a competing interest in the same property by mistake or by fraud. For example, the party creating or transferring an interest may have a valid title, but may intentionally or negligently create several interests wholly or partially inconsistent with each other. A court resolves the dispute by adjudicating the priorities of the interests. The term "transfer of property" generally means an act by which a living person conveys property, in present or in future, to one or more other living persons, or to himself and one or more other living persons. To transfer property is to perform such an act.
Property rights and rights to people
Property rights are rights over things enforceable against all other persons. By contrast, contractual rights are rights enforceable against particular persons. Property rights may, however, arise from a contract; the two systems of rights overlap. In relation to the sale of land, for example, two sets of legal relationships exist alongside one another: the contractual right to sue for damages, and the property right exercisable over the land. More minor property rights may be created by contract, as in the case of easements, covenants, and equitable servitudes.
A separate distinction is evident where the rights granted are insufficiently substantial to confer on the nonowner a definable interest or right in the thing. The clearest example of these rights is the license. In general, even if licenses are created by a binding contract, they do not give rise to property interests.
Property rights and personal rights
Property rights are also distinguished from personal rights. Practically all contemporary societies acknowledge this basic ontological and ethical distinction. In the past, groups lacking political power have often been disqualified from the benefits of property. In an extreme form, this has meant that people have become "objects" of property—legally "things" or chattels (see slavery.) More commonly, marginalized groups have been denied legal rights to own property. These include Jews in England and married women in Western societies until the late 19th century.
The dividing line between personal rights and property rights is not always easy to draw. For instance, is one's reputation property that can be commercially exploited by affording property rights to it? The question of the proprietary character of personal rights is particularly relevant in the case of rights over human tissue, organs and other body parts.
The rights of women to control their own body have been in some times and some places subordinated to other people's control over their fetus. For example, government intervention that controls the conditions of birthing by prohibiting or requiring caesarian sections. Whether and how a woman becomes pregnant or carries a pregnancy to term is also subject to laws mandating or forbidding abortion, or restricting access to birth control. A woman's right to control her body during pregnancy or possible pregnancy – what work she does, what food or substances she ingests, other activities she engages in – have also frequently been subject to restrictions by many other parties; in response, a number of countries have passed laws banning pregnancy discrimination. English judges have recently made the point that such women lack the right to exclusive control over their own bodies, formerly considered a fundamental common-law right.
In the United States, a "quasi-property" interest has been explicitly declared in the dead body. Also in the United States, it has been recognised that people have an alienable proprietary "right of publicity" over their "persona". The patent/patenting of biotechnological processes and products based on human genetic material may be characterised as creating property in human life.
A particularly difficult question is whether people have rights to intellectual property developed by others from their body parts. In the pioneering case on this issue, the Supreme Court of California held in Moore v. Regents of the University of California (1990) that individuals do not have such a property right.
Property law is characterised by a great deal of historical continuity and technical terminology. The basic distinction in common law systems is between real property (land) and personal property (chattels).
Before the mid-19th century, the principles governing the transfer of real property and personal property on an intestacy were quite different. Though this dichotomy does not have the same significance anymore, the distinction is still fundamental because of the essential differences between the two categories. An obvious example is the fact that land is immovable, and thus the rules that govern its use must differ. A further reason for the distinction is that legislation is often drafted employing the traditional terminology.
The division of land and chattels has been criticised as being not satisfactory as a basis for categorising the principles of property law since it concentrates attention not on the proprietary interests themselves but on the objects of those interests. Moreover, in the case of fixtures, chattels which are affixed to or placed on land may become part of the land.
Real property is generally sub-classified into:
- corporeal hereditaments – tangible real property (land)
- incorporeal hereditaments – intangible real property such as an easement of way
The concept of possession developed from a legal system whose principal concern was to avoid civil disorder. The general principle is that a person in possession of land or goods, even as a wrongdoer, is entitled to take action against anyone interfering with the possession unless the person interfering is able to demonstrate a superior right to do so.
In England, the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 has significantly amended the law relating to wrongful interference with goods and abolished some longstanding remedies and doctrines.
Transfer of property
The most common method of acquiring an interest in property is as the result of a consensual transaction with the previous owner, for example, a sale or a gift. Dispositions by will may also be regarded as consensual transactions, since the effect of a will is to provide for the distribution of the deceased person's property to nominated beneficiaries. A person may also obtain an interest in property under a trust established for his or her benefit by the owner of the property.
It is also possible for property to pass from one person to another independently of the consent of the property owner. For example, this occurs when a person dies intestate, goes bankrupt, or has the property taken in execution of a court judgment.
Different parties may claim an interest in property by mistake or fraud, with the claims being inconsistent of each other. For example, the party creating or transferring an interest may have a valid title, but intentionally or negligently creates several interests wholly or partially inconsistent with each other. A court resolves the dispute by adjudicating the priorities of the interests. According to the Indian property law, it define the ‘Transfer of property’ means an act by which a living person conveys property, in present or in future, to one or more other living persons, or to himself and one or more other living persons; and "to transfer property" is to perform such act.
In this section "living person includes a company or association or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not, but nothing herein contained shall affect any law for the time being in force relating to transfer of property to or by companies, associations or bodies of individuals.
Historically, leases served many purposes, and the regulation varied according to intended purposes and the economic conditions of the time. Leaseholds, for example, were mainly granted for agriculture until the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, when the growth of cities made the leasehold an important form of landholding in urban areas.
The modern law of landlord and tenant in common law jurisdictions retains the influence of the common law and, particularly, the laissez-faire philosophy that dominated the law of contract and the law of property in the 19th century. With the growth of consumerism, the law of consumer protection recognised that common law principles assuming equal bargaining power between parties may cause unfairness. Consequently, reformers have emphasised the need to assess residential tenancy laws in terms of protection they provide to tenants. Legislation to protect tenants is now common.
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