What is it and how does it work?
Civil Law is the section of the law that deals with disputes between individuals or organisations. For example, a car crash victim claims damages against the driver for loss or injury sustained in an accident, or one company sues another over a trade dispute.
Unlike criminal offences, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) doesn't prosecute a civil offence. Rather than any sentence, custodial or otherwise, the end result is usually financial compensation.
Civil Law has developed in a similar way to the way criminal law has, through a mixture of Statutory Law made by governments, and 'precedent' which is created by earlier cases.
What is 'precedent?'
An example of how precedent creates law is the law of 'negligence.' In the first 'negligence' case a woman developed gastro-enteritis after swallowing a snail contained in a bottle of ginger beer. Lord Atkin, the judge who heard the case, decided that she was entitled to some form of compensation. He ruled that the manufacturer had a 'duty of care' towards its customers and in this instance had been negligent - and the law of 'negligence' was created.
Burden of proof
One crucial difference between Civil and Criminal law is that the 'burden of proof' is lower in a civil case. A criminal case must be proved 'beyond reasonable doubt.' A civil case only has to be proved on the 'balance of probabilities,' i.e. it is 'likely' that the defendant is guilty.
The OJ Simpson trial in America is a classic example. The criminal trial hadn't proved 'beyond reasonable doubt' that he had murdered his wife, yet a subsequent civil trial decided that on the 'balance of probabilities' he had. As a result, the victim's family was awarded compensation, but in the criminal case, Simpson wasn't found guilty of murder, so he wasn't jailed.
Civil actions aren't always successful though. The family of Stephen Lawrence brought a civil action against those suspected of his murder. Although the 'burden of proof' was lower than in a criminal trial the men were once again acquitted when crucial identification evidence was ruled to be inadmissible.
Other areas covered by Civil Law are:
- Property - boundary disputes, trespass
- Work-related disputes - unfair dismissal, personal injury
- Defamation of character - The Neil Hamilton v Mohammed Al Fayed case is one example
- Consumer disputes - Faulty goods, 'trades description' offences
- Copyright or Intellectual Property disputes - Music sampling, plagiarism (copying someone else's material and passing it off as your own)
Read on to find out how Civil Law can affect you.
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