Civil and criminal law

The law can be divided into public and private. Public law includes criminal law and private law is commonly known as civil law. There is also procedural law which consists of sets of rules that have to be followed in both civil and criminal proceedings.

Public and Private LawPublic law deals with the government by itself and its relationship with individuals and corporations as well as other governments. It includes:

  • International law: governs relations with other states or countries.
  • Administrative and Constitutional law: these are the laws that deal with the conduct of the government and the relationships between public bodies.
  • Criminal law: deals with offences against the state and society as a whole. See criminal offences for more information.
  • Tax law: deals with revenue and customs.

Private law governs relationships between legal persons. See legal persons for more information. It is most often referred to as Civil law. The state does not get involved in civil matters but provides the means for legal persons to enforce Civil law through the courts and tribunals service. Private or Civil law includes:

  • Contract law: deals with contractual relationships which we are constantly entering into when buying or selling goods or services, buying or renting property, borrowing money, buying a car, etc.
  • Law of tort: deals with civil wrongs such as trespass, nuisance, negligence, personal injury, slander and libel, how to stop them and the remedies available.
  • Family law: deals with divorce and financial settlements, custody and visitation rights, adoption, domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect.
  • Land law: refers to the land and anything on it or in it, such as natural resources and buildings, trees, rights of way, boundary issues, ownership and deeds.
  • Employment law: refers to the employer/employee relationship and everything to do with the world of work, including both contentious and non-contentious issues such as contracts, remuneration, perks and benefits, redundancy, dismissal, harassment and discrimination.

The three Rules of LawThe rules of law that affect our everyday lives can be divided into three:

  • CRIMINAL: rules that forbid certain actions and behaviours and impose penalties against those who break them. These actions and behaviours are referred to as crimes. The focus is on punishment of offenders and deterrent against further offences.
  • CIVIL: rules that require some form of compensation to be paid by those who break them. These actions are known as torts (civil wrongs) and breaches of contract. The focus is on restitution.
  • PROCEDURAL: rules that set out the process to be followed to achieve a certain outcome. For example, what to do if you want to bring or defend a claim in the county court, take action against your employer or get divorced. These are known as procedural rules and there are rules for both criminal and civil actions.

The first two sets of rules (civil and criminal) are known as substantive law because they contain essential elements to the law.

Civil and criminal law compared side by side

Action started byProsecutor: Police officer, government body or the MonarchClaimant
Action taken againstAccusedDefendant
Reason for actionCriminal offenceBreach of contract
Type of actionBeing charged with an offenceBeing sued
Court of first instanceMagistrates Court
Indictable offences transferred to Crown Court
County Court
High Court
Burden of proofOn the prosecutionOn the claimant
Standard of proofBeyond a reasonable doubtOn the balance of probabilities
Case dismissed
Financial penalty
Community Service
Damages (monetary compensation)
Specific performance
Appeals heard byCrown Court (from Magistrates Court)
Administrative Court (on a point of law)
Court of Appeal - Criminal Division (from Crown Court)
Court of Appeal - Civil Division
Cases referred asR v AccusedClaimant v Defendant