The Fundamental Differences between Criminal Law and Civil Law in the UK

By December 19, 2022 February 8th, 2023 Criminal Law
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Understanding the differences between criminal law and civil law in the UK could prove extremely useful should you ever find yourself in a difficult situation. Remember, knowledge is power and will allow you to take the first step towards defending yourself or pursuing justice. However, as a layperson, you may be unfamiliar with complex legal matters and knowing which way to turn could seem daunting. 

Fortunately, at Wheldon Law, we have prepared a quick guide to help you understand the main differences between criminal law and civil law so you can identify the type of action to pursue should you find yourself facing a legal problem.

Criminal Law 

Criminal law refers to the activities that UK Acts of Parliament have prescribed as either acceptable or unacceptable. It also relates to offences that have a negative impact on society as a whole rather than on a single individual. In addition, criminal law applies to certain violations committed by a British citizen outside the UK but which are prosecuted under UK law in England and Wales. 

When someone is suspected of committing a criminal offence they will usually be investigated by the police which could result in  a criminal prosecution. . Criminal proceedings can take place in a Magistrates’ Court or a Crown Court and are brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on behalf of the Crown. Parties with specific interests (e.g., the RSPCA, the Royal Mail and HMRC) can also choose to pursue private prosecutions if necessary.

Examples of Criminal Law Cases

Examples of offences or activities that would violate UK criminal law include: 

  • Theft and burglary
  • Sexual assault
  • Murder and manslaughter
  • Fraud
  • Criminal damage and arson
  • Domestic abuse
  • Money laundering

If a defendant is found guilty, the court will impose a penalty according to the relevant legislation and sentencing guidelines. In most cases, this will be in the form of a fine, community order or prison sentence.

Civil Law 

Civil law usually involves disputes between individuals or between individuals and organisations. Unlike criminal law, it relates to offences that harm another person and their rights or property. In a civil case, the “claimant” brings the claim while the accused is called the “defendant”. Civil law cases  seek to settle disputes and establish whether the defendant had a responsibility or duty of care towards the claimant.

Examples of Civil Law Cases

Offences or activities in violation of UK civil law include: 

  • Personal injury
  • Family disputes
  • Breach of contract
  • Employment law

Unlike criminal law, no one is sent to prison after a civil case. However, if the defendant is found liable, they may be ordered to pay compensation in the form of damages.

Key Differences between Criminal Law and Civil Law in the UK 

Outlined below is some additional information to help you further understand the differences between criminal law and civil law in the UK.

 1. Who is involved?

The state prosecutes defendants in a criminal law case through the CPS. Meanwhile, in a civil law case, the claimant initiates proceedings against the defendant in a court or tribunal.

 2. Which courts handle the proceedings?

Criminal cases are heard in criminal courts, which include the Magistrates’ Court, the Youth Court and the Crown Court. Meanwhile, various courts and tribunals can handle civil cases. Depending on the value involved, they are generally heard in the County Court or the High Court. Specific tribunals can also deal with cases for certain areas of civil law. For instance, the Employment Tribunal will hear employment law proceedings.

 3. Standard of proof

The standard for proving guilt in a criminal case is significantly high. In other words, in order to secure a successful outcome, prosecutors must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond all reasonable doubt”. In a civil case, the claimant must prove their argument based on the balance of probabilities (i.e., it is more likely to be correct than not).  

4.  Outcomes and punishments

There are two possible outcomes in a criminal case: the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If they have been found guilty, they could be fined, sent to prison or be given a community order, depending on the particular offence. They may also face other penalties such as being disqualified from driving or have a restraining order imposed on them.  They may also be ordered to pay costs and/or compensation.

In a civil case, the defendant will be either found liable/partially liable or not liable. The court or tribunal that has heard the case can award damages to the claimant and can sometimes order a defendant to pay the costs of bringing the case..

Can You Face Both Criminal Action and Civil Action at the Same Time?

You may be surprised to learn that an individual can face criminal action and civil action at the same time. In fact, this happens more often than you might think. 

For instance, suppose someone has been accused of committing an assault. The CPS could bring criminal proceedings against them while the victim could also decide to file a civil action. Even if the criminal court clears the defendant of any wrongdoing, they could still lose the civil law case and be ordered to compensate the victim for their injuries.  If there are both criminal and civil proceedings underway at the same time, the criminal proceedings will usually be heard first.

Seek Expert Legal Advice ASAP

Understanding the differences between criminal law and civil law in the UK could be extremely useful if you ever find yourself facing a legal problem. For example, armed with knowledge of the law, you will be able to determine the best action to take in order to pursue justice or defend yourself.

As experts in UK criminal law, our team at Wheldon Law are committed to providing the best possible outcomes for our clients. If you require any specialist legal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us for some free preliminary advice.