Canadian Superior Court Judges Association

Criminal and Civil Law


Criminal law, one of two broad categories of law, deals with acts of intentional harm to individuals but which, in a larger sense, are offences against us all. It is a crime to break into a home because the act not only violates the privacy and safety of the home's occupants - it shatters the collective sense that we are secure in our own homes. A crime is a deliberate or reckless act that causes harm to another person or another person's property, and it is also a crime to neglect a duty to protect others from harm. Canada's Criminal Code, created in 1892, lists hundreds of criminal offences - from vandalism to murder - and stipulates the range of punishment that can be imposed. Since crimes are an offence against society, normally the state or Crown investigates and prosecutes criminal allegations on the victim's behalf. The police gather evidence and, in court, public prosecutors present the case against the person accused of the crime. For someone to be convicted of a crime, it must be proven that a crime was committed and, for most offences, that the person meant to commit the crime. For instance, striking another person is the crime of assault but it is only a crime if the blow was intentional.

Civil law deals with disputes between private parties, or negligent acts that cause harm to others . For example, if individuals or companies disagree over the terms of an agreement, or who owns land or buildings, or whether a person was wrongfully dismissed from their employment, they may file a lawsuit asking the courts to decide who is right. As well, the failure to exercise the degree of caution that an ordinarily prudent person would take in any situation may result in a negligence claim. Depending on the circumstances, a person may be held responsible for any damages or injury that occurs as a result of their negligence. Family law cases involving divorce, parental responsibility for children, spousal support, child support and division of property between spouses or common law couples represent a large portion of the civil law cases presented to the courts. Challenges to decisions of administrative tribunals, allegations of medical malpractice and applications for distribution of the estates of deceased persons are other examples of civil cases. The party who brings the legal action is known as the plaintiff or applicant, while the party being sued is the defendant or respondent. The courts may dismiss a case, or if it is found to have merit, the courts may order the losing party to take corrective action, although the usual outcome is an order to pay damages - a monetary award designed to make up for the harm inflicted. The state plays no role in civil cases, unless the government launches a lawsuit or is the party being sued. Parties retain a lawyer - or may choose to represent themselves - to gather evidence and present the case in court.

Differing standards of proof: More evidence is needed to find the accused at fault in criminal cases than to find the defendant at fault in civil ones. To convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must show there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed the crime and, in most cases, that they intended to commit it. Judges and juries cannot convict someone they believe probably committed the crime or likely is guilty - they must be almost certain. This gives the accused the benefit of any reasonable doubt and makes it less likely an innocent person will be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Civil cases, in contrast, must be proven on a balance of probabilities - if it is more likely than not that the defendant caused harm or loss, a court can uphold a civil claim.


Please note: The information contained in this section is intended to provide a simple overview of the Canadian Justice System. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, the Association makes no pronouncement on the practices & procedures employed across the country or on the likely outcome of any legal proceedings. The circumstances of any particular case may result in a modification or refinement of the law and its application. Nothing contained in this section is intended to be considered as legal advice and you should not rely upon it as such. For legal advice, please consult an authorized practitioner in your area.