Starting with law: An overview of the law
Starting with law: An overview of the law

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Starting with law: An overview of the law

2.2 Civil and criminal law

One of the most common classifications and one that is used by many legal systems, is the distinction between civil and criminal law. As civil and criminal law have different purposes, different systems for dealing with them have developed.

Criminal law is about creating laws for the protection of society as a whole and providing punishment for those who break those laws. Criminal law sets out types of behaviour that are forbidden within society and if the behaviour occurs, then punishment will follow. If you commit a crime, you have offended against the state and the state has the right to prosecute you. At the end of a case, if the defendant (the person who is alleged to have broken the law) is found guilty, they will be punished by the state.

Civil law is used to settle disputes between individuals (which can include companies and corporations). At the end of a case, the party at fault has to pay compensation or comply with another suitable remedy, such as an injunction.

There are a number of differences between criminal and civil law. These differences include the following.

  • The purpose of each is different. Criminal cases are brought to maintain law and order and to protect society. Civil cases are brought to uphold the rights of individuals and to provide redress.

  • The cases take place in different courts.

  • A criminal case is usually brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on behalf of the state (or Crown). A civil case is brought by an individual or company or corporation.

  • The standard of proof is different. Criminal cases must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Civil cases only have to be proven on the balance of probabilities.

  • The terminology used is different, and the person starting the case is given a different name by each system. Criminal cases are usually brought on behalf of the Crown (state) and civil cases are brought by a claimant, i.e. an individual or company or corporation.

While the distinction between civil and criminal is quite clear, it does not always capture the whole of the legal system or the types of law that exist.

Another classification that is commonly used is that of public law and private law.

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