Criminal Law or Civil law?

What's the difference?

When people think about law, they often have the Criminal law in mind. They think of people committing crimes, being arrested by the police, being put on trial and, if they are found guilty, being sent to jail.

But there is another area of law called Civil law that is just as important for people to know about.

Even people who know that both Criminal law and Civil law exist can get confused about what each does and how they are different.

Question mark

What is Criminal law?

Criminal laws are created by Parliament and they make it unlawful for a person to behave in a way that most people agree is wrong.

For example, the Theft Act 1968 states that a person is guilty of a theft if they take property that belongs to someone else and don’t intend to give it back.

When we talked to children in our last Law in Children’s Lives project, we were concerned to find that many children thought the police can decide who is guilty and send them straight to prison. This is not true!

Every person who is accused of committing crime has a right to a fair trial. It is an important human right that applies to everyone – even if they have done something wrong.

Illustration of shoplifting

Not all criminal trials involve a jury!

What is Civil law?

The Civil law sets out the rights and responsibilities people have towards each other in their day to day lives.  It is used when people get into disagreements which they cannot solve by talking to each other and it covers lots of different areas.  Just a few examples are:

Contract law  – what needs to happen when people make important agreements with each other, and with organisations.

Consumer law – what is supposed to happen when you buy things in store or on line.

Tort law –  ‘tort’ is a French word meaning ‘wrong’ or ‘harm’.  People and organisations have a responsibility  to behave in a way that does not cause harm to another person or their property.   If someone is harmed, even if it is by accident, then a person or organisation who is responsible for this may need to pay them money, to recognise the harm or injury they caused.

This could be as a result of a car accident, for example.

Family law – covers what can happen when people living in families experience issues such as parental separation or divorce, or what happens if a local council is very worried about a child and starts care proceedings.