Student Handout 3.1 - the Difference Between Civil Law and Criminal Law

One way of looking at criminal law is that it is dealing with something of public interest. For example, the public has an interest in seeing that people are protected from being robbed or assaulted. These are legal problems that fall into the criminal law.Criminal law involves punishing and rehabilitating offenders, and protecting society. Since the public has an interest in having criminal law, we give the government the power to put it in place and enforce it. The police and Crown Prosecutors are hired by the government to put the criminal law into effect. Public funds are used to pay for these services.

If you are the victim of a crime, you report it to the police and they have the responsibility to investigate. They arrest and charge the suspect. In most cases, if a charge has been properly laid and if there is evidence supporting it, the Crown Prosecutor, not the person who complains of the incident, prosecutes it in the courts. This is called a system of public prosecutions. Long ago the person who had been wronged prosecuted the case. The power to prosecute privately remains, but is used rarely now. Even if a person starts a prosecution privately, the Attorney General has the power to take over the prosecution of the case. As a victim, you do not have to be responsible for enforcing the law. The police and Crown Prosecutor do their jobs for the public at large, not for you personally.

In a criminal case, the Crown prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This means that at the end of a trial the judge or jury can only find the defendant guilty if they are left without a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. In other words, there is no logical or rational reason to doubt the defendant’s guilt.

This is not the case in civil law. Civil law is about private disputes between individuals or between individuals and organizations. Civil matters include areas such as contract law, family law, tort law, property law and labour law. The person suing for a wrong has the burden of proving their case on a "balance of probabilities." This means that a judge or jury must believe their story and evidence more than the defendant’s version. They do not need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

Civil disputes usually involve some harm, loss or injury to one party or their property. Unlike criminal law; however, civil law is primarily involved with compensating victims. If a civil action is successful, the defendant will be responsible for the wrongful action. While a defendant in a criminal case may be found "guilty" or "not guilty," a defendant in a civil case is said to be "liable" or "not liable" for damages.

If you have a civil law problem, you have to take action yourself if you want to get a legal remedy. You can hire a private lawyer, and you will have to pay the expenses of pursuing the matter. For example, if you hire someone to paint your house and they do a poor job, it is a dispute between you and the painter. The police do not get involved. If you want to sue the painter for breach of contract, it is your responsibility to do so.

Sometimes criminal law is referred to as part of our public law because it applies to all Canadians and regulates relationships within our society. Similarly, civil law is sometimes referred to as private law because it regulates private relationships between individuals in our society.