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Difference between criminal & civil law UK

What’s the difference between criminal and civil law? As one of the UK’s largest and best-known consumer law firms, the team at Slater and Gordon Lawyers have extensive experience in both of these areas. In this blog, we take a look at criminal vs. civil law and the key differences between them.

11 April 2018

What is criminal law?

Criminal law essentially relates to offences and breaches that negatively affect society as a whole, rather than just one person. This area of the law outlines what Acts of Parliament deem to be acceptable (and unacceptable) conduct in the UK. There are also offences which can be committed by a British citizen abroad, but then prosecuted under British law in England and Wales.

If a person breaches criminal law, they’re subject to criminal prosecution by the state. Criminal proceedings will usually be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the name of the Crown, and will be heard in a Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. Private Prosecutions are also pursued by parties who’ve a specific interest in the case such as the RSPCA/ Royal Mail.

Examples of offences that breach criminal law, while not an exhaustive list, include:

If convicted, the offender will receive the penalty laid out in the relevant legislation and sentencing guidelines, usually in the form of fines, prison sentences or community orders. In order to be found guilty of a criminal offence, the person must be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. They’re considered to be innocent unless proven guilty.

What does civil law cover?

Civil law is quite different from criminal law. It’s concerned with the rights and property of individual people or organisations, which may not always be protected by criminal laws. Civil law settles disputes between individuals and organisations, and it often involves compensation being awarded. No one is sent to prison in a civil case, but they may be left out of pocket if they’re found liable for compensation.

Examples of civil law cases include:

  • Family disputes, such as divorce, dissolution of civil partnerships, children’s issues and childcare arrangements
  • Personal injury cases, such as road traffic accidents, medical and clinical negligence and slips, trips and falls
  • Breach of contract or promise, such as cases where money is unpaid or a contract isn’t honoured
  • Employment law, for example where an employee suffers discrimination

Civil law cases often hinge on establishing whether or not the accused person or organisation, legally known as the defendant, had a duty of care towards the claimant. For example, an employer has a duty of care towards their employees. If an employee is injured at work, a personal injury solicitor must be able to prove that the employer breached their duty of care and that this breach caused the injury to the claimant.

What is the fundamental difference between criminal and civil law?

A good way to remember the key differences when considering criminal vs. civil law is this summation from William Geldart in an Introduction to English Law:

“The difference between civil law and criminal law turns on the difference between two different objects which law seeks to pursue - redress or punishment.”

In other words, criminal law seeks to punish for an offence. Civil law seeks to achieve a remedy (for example, compensation) for the injured party. Other important distinctions include:

  • By handing out a punishment or penalty, criminal law aims to deter offenders and others in society from offending
  • Criminal law has the ultimate aim of maintaining the stability of the state and society
  • Civil law aims to deal with disputes between individuals or organisations
  • Civil law cases usually (but not always) involve compensation or an agreement or judgement relating to finances
  • Civil law cases are filed by private parties, while criminal cases are usually filed by the government
  • The decision of the court in a criminal case is guilty or not guilty. In a civil court, it is liable or not liable
  • The outcome of civil cases where one party is found liable is usually the awarding of compensation, while for criminal cases it’s conviction and punishment in the form of a custodial sentence, fine or community service for someone found guilty
  • When it comes to appeals, either party can appeal in a civil case. In a criminal case, only the defendant can appeal the decision of the court

Can a person face both criminal and civil action for a crime?

The simple answer to this is yes, and it happens quite frequently. The CPS will prosecute a person in a criminal case, and then a wronged person (for example, the victim of a robbery or assault) may choose to bring civil action against that person too. The person may be found innocent in the criminal court, but lose the civil case and be ordered to pay damages or compensation to the injured party.

Need advice on a civil or criminal law case?

Whether you’re facing a civil or criminal law case, it’s essential to seek reliable legal advice as soon as possible. A trained legal expert can help you whether you’ve been accused of a crime, are facing a civil lawsuit or want to start a compensation claim.

Slater and Gordon assist clients in a wide range of civil and criminal cases. If you need our help, please don’t hesitate to contact us online or call freephone on 0330 041 5869.

All information was correct at the time of publication.

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