1 Categories of unlawful conduct
Courts determine cases that are brought before them. Generally the matters they deal with relate to some form of unlawful conduct (conduct that is contrary to or forbidden by law). That conduct will be classified as either civil or criminal. This classification will determine which branch of the legal system (justice system) a case is heard in.
Criminal activity is one form of unlawful conduct and can occur at personal, business, and executive levels. Criminal activities by individuals include burglary, assault, trafficking, theft, environmental damage and murder. Criminal activities by businesses include fraud, industrial espionage, pollution and tax evasion.
Civil disputes are also a form of unlawful conduct. These disputes can occur at a personal level, for instance, when neighbours argue over late-night noise or access to a shared driveway, when parties to a marriage or relationship decide to separate or when there is a dispute as to who should have day-to-day care of a child or relative. Civil disputes can also arise between individuals and businesses, for example, when customers refuse to pay their bills or companies fail to deliver a service to an agreed level. They can occur between businesses over the right to use a brand name or trademark. They may also occur between individuals and local councils over matters such as parking restrictions, traffic calming and planning permission.
Activity 1 A crime or civil wrong?
The ten examples below are all examples of unlawful conduct. Take a few moments to read through the examples and then indicate whether you think they should be categorised as civil or criminal unlawful conduct. As you make your decisions think about why you have categorised each example as either criminal or civil.
|Example||Civil or criminal unlawful conduct?|
|Taking stationery from your place of work|
|Taking sugar from a supermarket café when you buy a takeaway cup of coffee|
|Keeping money if you receive too much in change|
|Keeping money you have found in the street|
|Being in possession of cannabis|
|Playing music so loudly in your home that it disturbs your neighbours|
|Downloading box sets and films from the internet without paying for them or without authorisation|
|Dropping litter in the street|
|Driving a car at 32 mph in a 30 mph zone|
When discussing unlawful conduct lawyers tend to use terms such as ‘civil matter’ or ‘criminal conduct’ rather than using the term ‘unlawful conduct’. In the following explanations the terms ‘civil matter’ and ‘criminal conduct’ are used.
Taking stationery from your place of work, keeping money you found in the street and keeping money if you receive too much change are all forms of theft. Theft is a form of criminal conduct.
Taking sugar from a supermarket café when you buy a take away coffee could be a civil matter because you form a contract when you buy a cup of coffee. As part of that contract sugar and milk are provided to meet individual tastes and preferences. If however you were to take more sugar than you needed then this could become criminal conduct because implied within the contract to purchase the coffee is a contractual term that you would use only the sugar you needed. If you took more than you needed, then this could be construed as theft and, as such, it would be an example of criminal conduct.
Possession of cannabis and dropping litter in the street are examples of criminal conduct.
Playing music in your home so loudly that it causes your neighbours discomfort may become criminal conduct if your behaviour is persistent. Also, your neighbours could sue you for civil compensation as you are interfering with their enjoyment of their property. The neighbours could ask the court to make an order prohibiting you from playing your music; this order is known as an interdict.
If you download box sets or films from the internet without paying for them or without authorisation, the entertainment company which owns the rights to the box set or film could sue you for compensation as you are depriving them of legitimate business. Likewise if you try to sell illegally downloaded music, this is a crime and you could be fined or even sent to prison.
Driving your car over the speed limit is a crime.
From these examples you can see that sometimes conduct can be both a civil and a criminal matter.