Criminal Law vs Civil Law

What is the difference between civil law and criminal law in Australia?

In this article, we explore some of the differentiating factors between civil law and criminal law, and how they actually work in our modern-day society. Before examining how these two legal areas differ, we must take a closer look at Australia’s legal system.

Australia’s Legal System

Little is simple about the legal system and sometimes it is best explained by breaking it down into its most distinct terminology. There are two main fields in law that have a divide: civil law and criminal law.

According to William Geldart in his 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.” Essentially, criminal law is punishing someone for an offence, while civil law is looking to achieve a remedy for the injured or impacted party.

How does criminal law differ from civil law?

Criminal law deals with crimes and their punishments on the offenders. This could apply to state laws, or even apply to federal law. The main purpose of criminal law is to look after public interests by punishing and rehabilitating offenders, and protecting the general public. The government hires police and prosecutors using public funds to assist to apply criminal law in Australia.

Another point of difference in criminal law is that the defendant is either acquitted or found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The government must then prove that the defendant undoubtedly committed the crime during the Court case. If found guilty, the legal penalties for a criminal case may include incarceration, probation and fines.

Criminal law examples

Some examples of criminal law include:

  • Homicide;
  • Conspiracy;
  • Obstruction of justice;
  • Assault; and
  • Possession of a controlled substance.
Criminal Law

How does civil law differ from criminal law?

Unlike criminal law, civil law deals with disputes between one entity and another, protecting rights and responsibilities. The main purpose of civil law is to help resolve legal issues that impact on people’s lives such as debt, unpaid fines, discrimination and disputes. While civil law can be initiated by both private and public parties, you will often see these guidelines outlined in codes of conduct, business contracts, and other formal regulations.

In a civil court, the plaintiff is the one to bring a lawsuit against a defendant. The plaintiff must therefore prove to the Court that the defendant was responsible for the problem. In these civil cases, the liable party is ordered to pay damages (financial compensation) to the plaintiff.

In few cases does a breach of a civil law obligation usually lead to criminal sanctions, but rather some sort of compensation for loss, damages or injury to one of the parties.

Civil law examples

Some examples of civil law include:

  • Custody disputes;
  • Bankruptcy;
  • Defamation; and
  • Breach of contract.
Civil Law

Summary of criminal law and civil law in Australia

Regardless of whether you are facing a civil or criminal law case, you need to seek professional legal advice as soon as possible to assist with your case. Our team of experts are highly experienced in civil and criminal law and able to guide you on the process and course of action.

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