The Key Differences Between Criminal and Civil Law

1 January 2017

Law covers a huge amount of different areas and for this reason it is split into two main categories – Criminal and Civil which is also known as Private Law. Each of these areas covers different aspects of the law. Civil law is generally a dispute between individuals whereas Criminal law states what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable as the case may be. By highlighting the main differences between the two categories, we can build up a clear picture of the way law works. Criminal law is made up of precedents which are guidelines that we have to follow.

If we do not follow these guidelines known as laws we are at risk of punishment. If a person commits a crime, they are sent to court to receive a suitable punishment. When a crime is committed, it is committed against the state with ‘the state’ meaning all of us. (Class Notes, 2009) There are currently thought to be approximately eight thousand crimes that can be committed in the United Kingdom.

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These vary from a bald tyre right up to worst crime of murder. Within the criminal section there are various laws which can be made by an act of parliament, a statute or legislation.

Certain councils have the power to create laws known as bye-laws which is delegated legislation entrusted to the councils. Senior Judges also have the power to create laws; these laws are known as precedents. (Crime and justice, ND) In our criminal justice system there is one important rule which is known as the presumption of innocence, “A defendant is presumed to be innocent until he pleads guilty in court or, if he pleads not guilty until he is proved to be guilty in court. ” (Class notes, 2010. ) This means the jury or magistrate must be sure the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

The Court system with in criminal law consists of: House of Lords; Court of Appeal (criminal division); Queen’s Bench divisional Court; Crown Court and Magistrates Court. The Magistrate Court sees everyone that commits a crime in the United Kingdom regardless of how serious. The maximum sentence a Magistrate can issue is 6 months and a ? 5000 fine. If crime needs extra punishment, the case is sent to Crown Court. Notorious criminals such as Ian Huntley and Myra Hindley have appeared in Magistrates Courts. (Class notes, 2009)

Crown Courts are usually for more serious crimes that are tried in front of a judge and jury. It is then up to the Jury that consists of 12 members of the public to decide beyond all reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. In order for the Jury to get a guilty verdict they must agree to 12-0, 11-1 or minimum 10-2. If they cannot reach this agreement there will be a re-trial with a new jury. The Judge will then do the sentencing. (Thomas 1999, pg 24) The jury system was imported to Britain after the Norman Conquest; early functions were different from those used today.

The first jurors acted as witnesses providing information about local matters. After the Court case ‘Bushell 1670’ it changed the complete set up of the Jury system. Before this case Judges would try and bully juries into convicting the defendant particularly where the crime had political overtones. (Elliot, 2009, pg 219) The Queen’s Bench divisional court, criminal division and Supreme Court are all law making bodies that look at any cases that reach them to decide where the law is not clear and new precedents can come from it.

Only the Country’s top Judges can be involved in this. One famous controversial judge that has shaped certain areas of the law is Lord Denning. (Class Notes, 2009) The Old Bailey is the central criminal court which is in London. It is the most televised Court building and it normally sees the most serious of criminal cases. However 95% of criminal cases are held in Magistrates courts. On average a day’s trial in Magistrate’s Courts cost the taxpayer around.

The courts can impose four levels of sentence depending on the seriousness of the offence: discharges, fines, community sentences and imprisonment. The most severe punishment, imprisonment, is generally only used for the most serious offences. (Cjsonline, ND) If a crime is an imprisonable offence, it will have a maximum term laid down by Parliament. Judges and magistrates are also given sentencing guidelines – designed to provide consistency throughout the criminal justice process.

There are also fixed minimum sentences for some serious repeat offenders. (Cjsonline, ND) The other area of the law is Civil Law also known as private law. Civil Law deals with disputes between individuals therefore the state is not involved. (Class notes, 2009) Civil Law is a legal system set up to protect ordinary people in everyday activities. There are many areas under the name Civil Law such as Contract Law, Tort Law and Family Law. (Martin 2007, pg 49) In Civil Law one party known as the claimant sues the other called the Defendant.

Examples of common Civil Law claims include car accidents where the victim sues the driver that caused the incident, one business sueing another or personal injury claims. The burden of proof is usually up to the claimant to prove on a balance of probabilities meaning that it is more likely than not or fifty one percent certainty. This is much lower than the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ rule used in Criminal Courts. (Martin 2007, pg 51) The Civil Law court system is made up of: The European Court of Justice; House of lords; Court of Appeal (civil division); High court and County court.

Small claims cases deal with values less than ? 5000 or ? 1000 for a personal injury claim. Fast track cases deal will actions over five thousand pounds and under ? 15,000 heard in the County Court. Anything over ? 15,000 is called a multi track case and these are heard in the High Court. Out of Court settlements have become very popular resulting in only eight percent of Civil Cases ending up in Court. This is when the defendant makes an undisclosed offer to the Claimant which results in no judiciary action being taken.

Some famous out of court settlements include that of The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Katie Price. (Civil law cases, ND) In the past, most Civil Cases were tried by juries but trial by Jury in the Civil System is almost obsolete. Now less than one percent of Civil Cases are tried by a Jury however the Supreme Court Act 1981 gives a right to Jury Trial in four types of case: libel and slander; malicious prosecution; false imprisonment and fraud. (Class notes, 2009) The option of Jury is also down to the discretion of the Court and the type of case. Quinn, 2009, pg 223)

In Civil Law, you are awarded with a remedy if you successfully win a case against the defendant it is therefore said that the defendant has been negligent. The judge can order a sum of money to be paid which is known as damages. Other remedies can include an injunction again depending on the type of case. (Class notes, 2009, pg 4) Many people do not know how to differentiate between civil and criminal Law as it has never been made clear to them. They are both completely different sections of the Law that can be summed up in different ways.

I have made it clear that criminal Law and the crimes that come within this section of law can be broken therefore, a punishment will be issued. Within civil Law a person does not actually commit a crime. It is when a dispute between individuals is brought to court to seek a reasonable outcome by means of a money payment or an injunction. Aims – hypothesis I believe that most people will be able to differentiate between criminal and civil law and they will have a clear understanding of how the law works.

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The Key Differences Between Criminal and Civil Law. (2017, Jan 26). Retrieved May 20, 2019, from
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