Criminal law and civil law.  Two very big arms of the law and each with their own sub-branches and specialties.  As lawyers we take it for granted that people know the difference between the two and they don't. They really don't.  


Let's begin by defining a crime: 

The dictionary defines a crime as:

An action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punnishable by law.
— Oxford English Dictionary

That definition is really circular, it effectively is saying that a crime is doing or not doing something that is a crime. 

The legal definition of a crime is a lot broader. Under the law, a crime occurs only if a series of things has happened.  The definition of a crime under the law is a bit more of a checklist.

That's why In Victoria at least, under the Crimes Act there is no definition of what a "crime" is.  The Act only defines what acts are considered to be crimes that if done under the right circumstances will attract punishment.

The definition of what a crime is, has been decided through centuries of case law.  The Commonwealth Criminal Code 1995 has codified (unified) all the different case law into a single Act.  Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code (and this is largely true across all the different law of the states and territories too) for someone to commit a crime they need to: 

  1. Have done something, or not done something that the law does not allow, like steal a bag or not pay their taxes;
  2. Whatever they have done or not have done must have been voluntary (and not while sleepwalking for example, or while having a seizure) ;
  3. Whatever they have done or not done voluntarily has to have also been done with intent, knowledge or recklessness (which means that they weren't careful when they should have been.)

This is an extreme simplification of the definition of the criteria for crime under the law because, the law being the law there are so many exceptions, defences and, intricacies but just know that for something to be a crime you need to have the intent to break the law and the action of breaking the law. 


Civil Law

Civil law is a little easier to describe, because it's usually describes by what it isn't, not by what it is.  

Civil law is basically the branch of the law that isn't criminal law.  Civil law is the part of the law that deals with things like disputes between two people over a contract, damages for injuries, workplace disputes, defamation and so on. 

Civil law essentially is about awarding someone who has been injured in some way (either physically, financially or emotionally) some sort of compensation or relief whereas criminal law is about punishment of people who commit crimes. Yes, I know I always say that it's a lot more complicated than that and it is because law; but for our purposes just go with me here. 


What's the difference between civil and criminal cases? 

A criminal case is taken to court by the government.  The government has made a law that states that x is a crime and if you do whatever x is you will be punished by the government. 

The government has an interest in making sure that the laws it makes are followed so they take accused people to court; that's why criminal cases are listed in court as R v Criminal or, DPP v Criminal or, Queen v Criminal (R for Regina which means Queen, or the Department of Public Prosecutions all of whom are stand-ins for the government).  

Obviously the Premier or the Prime Minister don't come to your house to arrest you themselves because you've stolen a car.  The police are in charge of doing this on behalf of the government; they prepare the prosecution against an accused person and, a court decides if the person is guilty or not and receives whatever punishment is determined. 

A civil case is a case taken to court by one person against another.  If someone has done something to you that has caused you some sort of harm then you can sue that person in court. The police don't get involved in civil matters because they're usually just private disagreements between two people.

Criminal cases and civil cases have different requirements in terms of what you have to prove in court.  In criminal cases the prosecution has to prove that the person they are taking to court is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, so if there even the smallest doubt that someone could be innocent then they must be released. 

In civil cases, the person you are suing or the one suing you has to prove that you need compensation based on the balance of probabilities.  That is, that it's more likely than not that the other person needed to make sure you didn't slip in their shop and break your leg for example.



A criminal case is one where the government takes people to court once they can prove that they did something that is considered a crime, freely and with intent.  

Because the penalties in criminal cases can include life in jail then the government, through the police and the prosecution service has to prove that the person in court is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

A civil case is one that isn't a criminal case.  It's usually between two or more persons (one person and another, one person and a company, two companies and so on) and they are trying to establish that they have suffered some sort of wrong and they need compensation for it.  

To establish this they need to show the court that, on the balance of probabilities it was more likely than not that they owed a person a duty to be careful towards them and they weren't.