The difference between criminal and civil law


civil lawThe 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). They have since married and divorced, and Norman has married a third time.

In simple terms, criminal law is:


  • Law that is defined, enforced and prosecuted by the state.
  • Law that seeks to set boundaries of conduct for individuals in the society.
  • Law with a strong range of sanctions, from fines to imprisonment – and even, in some societies, execution.
  • Law that deals with offences against the person (e.g. murder, assault, sexual assault).
  • Law that deals with offences against property (e.g. theft, fraud, arson, vandalism).
  • Law that deals with offences against morality (e.g. pornography, prostitution, bigamy.

In contrast, civil law is:

  • Concerned with the rights and property of individuals not necessarily protected by criminal laws.
  • Initiated by an aggrieved party (the plaintiff) against those from whom he/she seeks a remedy.
  • Sometimes concerned with commercial or contractual disputes, such as unpaid monies or a breach of promise.
  • Sometimes concerned with marital break-ups, divorce settlements, custody of children and child maintenance.
  • Sometimes concerned with other personal suffering, such as psychological harm or loss of reputation.

Criminal and civil law are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for an individual to be prosecuted for criminal conduct and then to face civil action for the same conduct. Because the standard of proof is higher in criminal law, it is not uncommon for civil action to succeed where the accused was found ‘not guilty’ 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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