Most people perceive the justice system as one monolithic entity. Although it essentially ensures that some form of justice is served when the law is broken, there are major differences between its two broad categories.
Criminal law and civil law deter or punish wrongdoings but differ greatly in the type of laws they enforce, the initiation of cases, types of penalties imposed, legal procedures and several other important ways.
To fully understand how these two bodies of law differ, let’s explore each and then examine the key differences.
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The Canadian criminal law can be defined as a body of law that punishes individuals for violating a public-law statute such as the Criminal Code, Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, or other federal or provincial criminal statutes.
Criminal law deals with crimes, i.e., prohibited acts or omissions. Although a crime can affect an individual party or directly, criminal law views prohibited behaviour as an intentional/ reckless act against society or the state.
Criminal law aims to punish those who cause injury or harm to society. The government, though Crown Attorneys, brings charges against the accused, and if found guilty, they face punishment as provided for by the Criminal Code or other applicable statutes. The penalties for criminal acts include fines payable to the government, imprisonment, probation and other punitive consequences.
The Canadian criminal law groups crimes into two categories depending on their seriousness, i.e., summary offences and indictable offences.
These are considered “minor crimes” and carry less severe penalties than indictable offences. The maximum punishment for a summary offence conviction is a fine of $5000, up to 2 years in prison, or both.
Some examples of summary offences include:
- Theft under $5,000
- Causing a disturbance
- Soliciting prostitution
Indictable offences are serious crimes compared to summary offences. The penalties for indictable crimes are severe and vary per the gravity of each case. They range from a few years in prison to life imprisonment.
Some indictable offences include:
Note that some crimes are hybrid offences, i.e., they can be tried as either indictable or summary offences depending on the severity of the crime and harm caused. They include sexual assault, sexual interference and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle.
And with that, we have an overall understanding of criminal law. Time to dive into civil law and explore some of its characteristics.
Civil law can be defined as sets of laws that guide the interaction between individuals, corporations and business entities. These laws aim to protect the interests of the two interacting parties, and in case of a disagreement, wrongful act or harm, they help settle disputes.
In other words, civil law deals with civil matters, i.e., issues between private citizens, excluding those of criminal nature. This is unlike criminal law, which deals with issues between an individual and society.
Civil suits are usually initiated by the wronged party (plaintiff) to obtain compensation for the damage done by the defendant. If the civil court finds the defendant liable for the damage suffered by the plaintiff, they will be required to provide monetary remedies. Therefore, the punishment in civil litigation is mostly financial compensation.
There are four categories of civil law:
- Tort law – most civil litigations fall under tort law. A tort is an injury to a person or their property due to another party’s recklessness or negligence. Tort law protects people and their property and enables them to seek compensation in case of injury or damage resulting from others’ carelessness.
- Contract law – a contract is an agreement between businesses, individuals or corporations. It creates a legally binding obligation between the parties involved.
- Property law – governs a person’s rights and duties regarding real estate or personal property ownership.
- Family law – focuses on all issues involving family matters, including child custody disputes, divorce, emancipation, adoption, and more.
By now, you should be able to spot the differences between the two areas of law. But we, Jeffrey Reisman Criminal Defence Firm, will make it even easier for you to differentiate the two. How, you ask? By pointing out the key differences in the next section.
Cause of action refers to the legal basis of pursuing legal action. In civil law, the cause of action is a dispute between private parties due to property damage, personal injury, custody disputes and contract violation. In criminal law, the cause of action is behaviour deemed harmful to society, including drug offences, theft, murder and weapon offences.
Any case always involves two parties. In civil suits, two individuals are involved, one who feels hurt by the cause of action, i.e., the plaintiff and the wrongdoer, i.e., the defendant. The plaintiff is responsible for filing the civil complaint against the defendant.
Criminal cases involve the state, represented by the Crown Attorney, and the defendant (the wrongdoer). The Crown Attorney is responsible for filing a case against the defendant. Not that if a victim of a crime chooses not to press charges, the state may still file a case and prosecute the accused.
The burden of proof refers to the legal duty of the initiating party to prove a claim or assertion beyond a certain standard. In a criminal proceeding, the state must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to get a conviction. This is a higher burden of proof compared to civil litigations.
In civil cases, the burden of proof is based on a balance of probabilities. This means the plaintiff must prove that it’s 50% or more likely that the claim is true and the defendant is liable.
In criminal cases, persons found guilty of criminal acts are sentenced per the guidelines provided by the criminal code or other statutes. Prescribed penalties include fines payable to the government, incarceration, and probation.
In civil cases, if the defendant is found liable, they are ordered to compensate the plaintiff or fulfil their contract.
As we have already established, civil and criminal laws are purposely designed to establish and punish different wrongdoings, i.e., private disputes (civil) and crimes (criminal).
However, the two tend to intersect. Interesting, right? How exactly do they intersect?
Well, some acts can result in both criminal and civil cases. Criminal law and civil law are not mutually exclusive. For example, assault can result in a criminal case as it’s prohibited by criminal law and a civil case if the victim seeks compensation for damage caused by the act.
A civil case can also emerge from a criminal case due to human rights and other constitutional issues. For example, a wrongfully imprisoned person seeking compensation.
If you are facing criminal charges in Toronto, it’s in your best interest to retain an experienced criminal defence lawyer. Criminal cases are complex and require thorough preparations to ensure the best possible results. Jeffrey Reisman has the experience, knowledge and determination to prepare a suitable defence and fight for you in court.
Contact our firm today to schedule a free consultation.