When the word ‘Law’ is mentioned most people think about criminal law, rules forbidding things like murder, theft, assault or deception. They think of the police, of arrests, trials by jury, and guilty people going to prison. Criminal law is the state telling people what they must not do, and prosecuting and punishing offenders. Criminal law, however, is only one part of the English legal system, though it gets a lot of publicity.
Civil law, on the other hand, is about the whole structure of the life we lead in this country. It is about how people behave in their contact with each other, how the Government behaves, and how individuals and organisations, big and small, deal with, and relate to each other. It concerns the rights, duties and obligations which people have. All this is dealt with in Civil courts, by impartial Judges sitting on their own (without a jury) to deal with disputes between individuals, companies and other organisations, and sometimes the government. Most of this work is done in the County Courts, by Circuit or District Judges. A small number of very important or expensive cases is tried in the High Court, by High Court Judges.
A most important area of civil law is the law of contract. Contracts are agreements that you cannot break without consequence. Take a typical person. He or she lives in a house which has been bought from somebody else. There was an agreement about how much it would cost, and how much property, land or building, you would get in exchange for your money. That is a contract. You pay the money, that is the price, and the other person hands over the property. Rights may come with the house, such as the right to get to and from it. Those agreements are contracts. If the seller takes your money but does not hand over the house, he has broken his contract, and you can go to court to get your money back, or get the house handed over to you. The water, gas and electricity which come into your house come as a result of agreements made with the suppliers. These are also contracts. So too is your mortgage, which is an agreement to lend money to buy a house, which gives the lender the right to compensation from the value of the house if the loan is not repaid.
You have a job. This involves a contract of employment – to say what work you are expected to do, and how much your employer will pay you for doing it. The contract also deals with how either side can bring the arrangement to an end. Many times a week you will buy things. Every time you do, you make a contract. You agree to pay a price, and the shop agrees to sell you what you asked for. What is sold must be of suitable quality. If the soles quickly come off the bottom of some new shoes, the shop has broken its contract. If your new car breaks down, the garage has broken its contract. You go to the theatre or cinema, or a football match, your ticket is evidence of the contract you have made. The organiser agrees to provide the event in exchange for your money. A train or aeroplane ticket is evidence of a contract to take you where and when has been agreed. People who make contracts, and do not do what they agreed to do, have broken their contract. Then the other person can go to court to get compensation, which is called damages.
There are other very important aspects of Civil law. You must be reasonably careful not to cause harm to people. This is called the law of negligence. Thus you must be careful not to drive into other people, or their cars, or fell a tree so that it falls on someone. Your property must be safe for your visitors. Highway authorities must maintain the roads so that they are not dangerous. A medical specialist who treats or operates on you must do so carefully, so as to avoid causing you harm. A solicitor, accountant or doctor must give you proper advice, and not be careless. You will be responsible to anyone hurt by a dangerous animal you do not control. Your place of work must be safe. If someone is injured because of your negligence (or has lost money) he or she can generally bring a claim for damages in a civil court.
‘Damages’ is an expression used to mean a sum of money in compensation for the injury or loss which a person has suffered. There is a lot of civil law about what damages can be recovered and how they are to be calculated.
There are many other areas of civil law. Before you die it is sensible to make a will saying what is to happen to your property. An area of civil law deals with wills, and whether they are valid, whether they can be altered, and what happens if there is no will. Marriages may break down, and there may be a divorce. Civil law decides what is a fair distribution of the matrimonial assets. If you lend money to a person who does not pay it back, you can bring a civil action to recover the debt.
Sometimes the government, or some organisation like a local council, does something which it has no right to do. In that case an affected citizen can bring a civil action against the government. Often actions are brought about whether local authorities should provide people with housing.
Putting it shortly, most of the relationships and transactions between people and organisations are governed by civil law. If people do not do what they are under a duty to do, they can be sued in a civil court. Sometimes it looks as though someone is about to do something which will harm another person. Civil law often allows an action to be brought to obtain an order to stop it. This is called an injunction.
It is this structure of civil legal obligations, enforced by the civil courts, which holds society together and lets it function fairly and efficiently. It is of the greatest importance to the country in which you live. It enables commerce to thrive, and citizens to protect themselves against broken agreements, dishonesty, carelessness and injustice. England has a very highly developed and flexible system of civil law, which is one of the greatest advantages of living here.