by John Bandler
"Civil law" is the vast areas and bodies of law that are not criminal law. It is a forum where one person or company can bring a claim against another, typically for monetary damages.
I discuss criminal law in another article and that is highly specialized and extremely important, with special considerations that do not apply for civil law. A criminal case is brought by the government, defendants can be arrested, and can be punished if found guilty, including with jail.
In civil law, one party sues another, and typically that suit is for money. The party bringing the lawsuit is the plaintiff, and that can be an individual, organization, and even the government. The party who is being sued is the defendant. And there is a whole process for resolving that lawsuit. And there are a whole bunch of areas of civil law, and attorneys specialize in each of them, just like doctors specialize in certain areas of medicine.
- (I am not trying to equate lawyers with doctors! Medical training and medical practice is much more intense than legal training and legal practice).
Purpose of civil law
As alluded to above, the purpose of civil law is a set of standards for conduct (government rules) and a process for resolving disputes, including where one party has allegedly wronged another.
This allows one party to sue another party for compensation (damages) and also for an order to do (or refrain from doing) something.
Areas of civil law
There are a lot of areas of civil law, and one could say each is it's own body of law.
- Tort law (wrongs)
- Intentional torts (wrongs)
- Negligent torts (wrongs)
- Contract law
- Property law
- Cybersecurity and privacy law
- Intellectual property law
- Employment law
- Immigration law
- Regulatory law
- Laws for particular sectors
Process of a lawsuit
Civil procedure is the process of resolving a civil claim and civil lawsuit. The typical steps in a lawsuit are:
- Summons and complaint
- The complaint is filed with the court to commence the civil action.
- The complaint and a summons is served on a defendant, directing them to appear in court.
- Motion to dismiss: The defendant may move to dismiss the complaint on a number of grounds. The plaintiff will respond.
- Decision on the motion to dismiss.
- Answer to the complaint: The defendant answers the complaint.
- A defendant might sue the plaintiff back (bring a counterclaim, or bring other parties into the case.
- Discovery (disclosure): Facts and evidence are exchanged by both parties, including depositions (verbal testimony), interrogatories (written questions and answers), and exchange of documents.
- Motion for a summary judgement. Each party may move for a summary judgement on each claim, alleging that there is no reasonable dispute over certain facts, so the claim does not have to be heard by a jury. The other party responds.
- Decision on the summary judgment motions
- Hearings for pre-trial issues
- Trial to decide the facts. The fact finder could be a jury or a judge (bench trial).
- Appeal. At least one side will be unhappy with the trial (or summary judgement decision), so they could appeal.
Typically, the burden of proof at trial in a civil case is a preponderance of the evidence. This means more likely than not, or that the weight of the evidence is 50% plus a little bit more to tip the scales.
Criminal law compared
In contrast, criminal law is where the government brings a legal case on behalf of society, charging an individual with committing a crime. The criminal justice system has a lot of unique aspects that do not apply in the civil system, including the routine of search warrants, arrests, holding defendants in custody, potentially punishing them with jail, and a host of legal procedures and protections because of the enormous power of the government. While criminal law is immensely important for the people involved in it (victims, defendants, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and all the other participants), civil law is much bigger and includes many discrete areas of law. See my article on criminal law.
Civil law is an enormous and important area of law. It is where most lawyers work and most legal cases are found. If individuals or organizations are having a dispute they cannot resolve, the civil litigation process is designed to resolve those disputes in a peaceful way, focusing on facts and law. Every one of us makes important decisions relating to civil law many times in our life, and we make daily decisions that affect our legal rights in some way (even if we aren't aware we are doing so).
This short article has many simplifications, is not tailored to your circumstances and is not legal or consulting advice.
If you want to learn more about law, there is lots on this site, and my Udemy course.
If your organization needs help with improving its internal documentation and compliance with laws and regulations, including regarding cybersecurity and protecting from cybercrime, let me know.
- U.S. Constitution
- Fourth Amendment cases things to know
- Introduction to Law (Outline)
- Criminal Law
- Civil Law (this article)
- My book on Cybercrime Investigation has a number of chapters devoted to criminal law and criminal investigation
- Helpful Legal Links and References
This article is hosted at https://johnbandler.com/civil-law, copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.
This article is also available on Medium.com at NOT YET (though not kept as up to date).
Originally posted 12/13/2023, updated 2/13/2024.