The difference between criminal and civil law


civil law

Greg Norman and Chris Evert at their 2008 wedding

The main function of the law is to protect the lives, liberties, rights and property of citizens. There are two fundamental areas of law: criminal law and civil law. Law represented in news reports, public discussion or popular culture, such as TV crime shows, it is usually criminal law. But we often hear about civil law cases too, such as High Court challenges and actions to recover losses or damages. High-profile divorce cases also make the news. In 2006 Australian golf professional Greg Norman (see picture) separated from his wife of 25 years, Laura Norman. Their somewhat acrimonious divorce case was heard by a Florida court in 2007, with the court granting Laura Norman a hefty $US100 million settlement. Within months Greg Norman became engaged to former tennis pro, Chris Evert (also pictured) – however they have since divorced, and Norman has married a third time.

In simple terms, criminal law refers to:


  • Laws that are defined by legislation, enforced by the police and prosecuted by the state.
  • Laws that set clear and firm boundaries of conduct for individual behaviour in a society.
  • Laws with a strong range of sanctions or punishments, ranging from fines to imprisonment and, in some societies, execution.
  • Laws that deal with offences against the person, such as murder, attempted murder, assault and sexual assault.
  • Laws that deal with offences against property, such as theft, fraud, arson and vandalism.
  • Laws that deal with offences against public morality, such as prostitution, child pornography, bigamy and indecent exposure.

In contrast, civil law:

  • Is concerned with protecting the rights and property of individuals that are not necessarily protected by criminal laws.
  • Is usually initiated by an aggrieved party (such as the plaintiff), who takes legal action against those who they claim to have wronged them.
  • Is sometimes concerned with commercial or contractual disputes, such as unpaid monies, an unfulfilled contract or a breach of promise.
  • Is sometimes concerned with resolving family disputes, such as marital break-ups, divorce settlements, child custody arrangements and child maintenance.
  • Is sometimes concerned with examining personal suffering, such as psychological harm or loss of reputation, to find out if someone is liable and whether they should make restitution.

Criminal and civil law are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for an individual to be prosecuted for criminal conduct and then face civil action for the same conduct. Because the standard of proof is higher in criminal law than civil law, it is not unknown for civil action to succeed, even if the accused was acquitted in a criminal trial. In 1995 a California jury acquitted former NFL star Orenthal ‘OJ’ Simpson for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown, and another man, Ronald Goldman. Two years later a civil action against Simpson saw Goldman’s family granted a payment of $US33.5 million.



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