11. What is “civil law” and “criminal law”?
Do not be confused by the various uses of the word civil within the legal system. Civil law may refer to a system of law, but it generally refers to civil actions — which are legal actions between individuals. In this case, it means suing or bringing a lawsuit against an individual, a business, or a governmental body. Criminal law, in contrast, refers to the rules and procedures for enforcing those rules prohibiting “bad acts” of individuals within the governing body’s jurisdiction. While civil actions seek compensation for losses or an order from the court restricting certain conduct, criminal actions seek to punish individuals for violating a criminal law. Often, an individual’s actions will subject her to a criminal prosecution by the government as well as a civil action by an injured party.
• Discussion: What are some types of criminal activity that are also civil causes of action? Can you think of any examples of criminal prosecutions that resulted in acquittal in a criminal trial but resulted in liability in a civil lawsuit?
• Practice Question: Anne-Marie is generally a likable person. One day while hanging out with her friends, she gets into an argument with Wilson. During the argument, he says some very offensive and slanderous things about Anne-Marie. Unwilling to take Wilson’s verbal abuse, Anne-Marie sprays him in the face with a can of mace that she carries in her purse. Wilson falls to the ground in pain. Some bystanders see Wilson in pain and call the police and rescue squad. It turns out that Wilson suffers severe damage to his sight because of the caustic spray. Because of the incident, Anne-Marie ultimately serves 30 days in jail and is forced to pay a judgment to Wilson for $50,000. Is Anne-Marie’s punishment a result of criminal law, civil law, or both?