A citizen is any member of a state who is formally recognised as a citizen by that state. The concept of citizenship is therefore legalistic. Citizens are individuals who have some sort of legal status within a state – they have been granted certain rights by the state & are expected to perform certain duties: "The citizen should be understood in the first instance not as a type of person…but as a position in the set of formal relationships defined by democratic sovereignty" (Donald 1996, p.174)
The precise range & balance between the rights granted to citizens & the duties that they are expected to perform varies from time to time & from state to state. Where exactly do political rights come from? The question of where political rights come from has concerned political philosophers for centuries. The distinction is often made between natural rights & positive rights.
Political theorists who acknowledge that there are natural rights argue that certain rights are universally applicable to all societies. Locke (1690) argued that before the creation of political societies, human beings existed in a state of nature in which God-given natural laws & rights existed. These & rights were to be the basis of political societies when they were eventually created. Locke claimed that life, liberty & property were natural rights.
A key characteristic of citizenship is that citizens are subject to & protected by the laws of the state. In the UK there are three separate legal systems in operation – one which operates in England & Wales, a second which operates in Scotland, and a third which operates in Northern Ireland. To some extent, therefore, the justice that British citizens have depends on where they live or where they commit their crime. However, all three legal systems distinguish between criminal & civil law.
Criminal law is concerned with behaviour that is disapproved of by the state and has therefore been made illegal by statute. Since criminal offences are regarded as offences against the state, most cases in England & Wales are brought by the Crown Prosecution Service on the state's behalf. People accused of theft or murder, for example, are tried in criminal courts. Punishment ranges from fines & community service to long-term imprisonment.
Civil law is concerned with the relationships between individuals & groups. It deals with disputes which arise over matters such as the making of contracts or wills, accusations of libel & slander or the custody of children after divorce. Individuals or organisations who lose a case in a civil court are not punished in the same way as in a criminal case. Rather, they are ordered to recompense the other party in some way – for example, by paying damages or handing over the rights to property or the custody of children.
Due to their different objectives, the criminal & civil systems operate within different court structures, though these come together at the highest level. The legal system in England & Wales is organised hierarchically. Superior courts hear more serious cases and re-examine, on appeal, cases which were first brought to the lower courts.