What’s The Difference Between Criminal And Civil Law in the UK?

Mariam Abu HusseinLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 20th May 2024

The difference between criminal and civil law doesn't just boil down to legal theory; it has real-life implications.

If you find yourself caught up in a legal dispute or accused of wrongdoing, it’s important to know the difference to assess your options and make informed decisions.

In this article, we'll provide an overview of the key differences between civil law and criminal law and answer frequently asked questions we often get from clients.


What is criminal law? 

Criminal law deals with actions that harm society, as defined by the UK Acts of Parliament. If someone breaks these laws, they can be prosecuted by the state, usually through the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). These cases are heard in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. 

Examples of criminal offences include: 

  • Criminal damage 

  • Arson

  • Theft

  • Sexual assault

  • Domestic violence

  • Murder

  • Fraud

  • Money laundering 

  • Drug dealing 

To be found guilty of a crime, the person (known as the defendant) must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then, they’re considered innocent.

If someone is convicted of a crime, penalties can include fines, prison sentences, or community orders.

What is civil law?

Civil law deals with disputes between individuals or entities, rather than offenses against society.

It covers matters such as contracts, employment disputes, personal injury claims, family law issues like divorce, and property disputes. 

In civil cases, the aim is to resolve conflicts and compensate the injured party, rather than punish wrongdoers. 

Proceedings are started by one party (the claimant) against another (the defendant), and the burden of proof is usually based on the balance of probabilities. This means that the claimant must show that it is more likely than not that their version of events is true. 

If defendants are found liable in civil cases, they may have to pay damages or comply with a court order. 

What is the difference between civil law and criminal law? 

Criminal law punishes wrongdoers, while civil law resolves disputes between individuals, aiming to compensate the injured party.

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, while in civil cases, it's based on the balance of probabilities, which is a lower standard.

Put simply, in civil matters, nobody faces imprisonment; instead, the defendant might have to pay compensation or comply with a court order.

Can a defendant face both criminal and civil action? 

A person can face both criminal and civil action for the same incident. 

For example, if someone steals something, they could face criminal charges brought by the CPS for breaking the law. Additionally, the victim could also pursue a civil case against the perpetrator to seek compensation for the stolen property or damages sustained as a result of the theft. 

Can a person be found not guilty in criminal court but lose a civil case?

A person can be found not guilty in criminal court but still lose a civil case related to the same incident. 

This is because, in a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury or judge decides that there is insufficient evidence to meet this standard, the defendant may be found not guilty in a criminal court. 

However, in a civil case, the standard of proof is lower. So, even if the evidence does not meet the high standard required for a criminal conviction, it may still be enough to establish liability in civil cases.

Therefore, the defendant could be found liable and ordered to pay compensation or other remedies in the civil case, even if they were acquitted in criminal court. 

Can a civil case become a criminal case in the UK? 

A civil case can potentially lead to criminal charges under certain circumstances. 

For example, if evidence uncovered during civil proceedings reveals criminal conduct, the authorities may choose to investigate and bring criminal charges against the individual or entity involved. This could happen if the evidence suggests that the conduct in question goes beyond a mere civil dispute and constitutes a violation of criminal law. 

Additionally, if a court in a civil case finds evidence of fraud, deception, or other criminal behaviour, it may refer the matter to law enforcement for further investigation and potential prosecution. 

In such cases, the decision to pursue criminal charges would be made by the CPS based on the evidence and applicable laws, not by the claimant in the original civil claim.

Which courts handle criminal law cases?

In the UK, criminall matters are heard in: 

Magistrates’ Court 

This is the lowest level of criminal court and deals with less serious criminal offenses. Magistrates can hear cases, impose fines, and pass sentences of up to six months in prison

Crown Court 

This court handles more serious criminal cases and cases referred from the Magistrates’ Court for sentencing.

Crown Court trials involve a judge and jury and can impose longer prison sentences and more severe penalties. 

Which courts handle civil law cases?

Civil matters are heard in: 

County Court 

The County Court deals with civil matters including contract disputes, personal injury claims, and landlord-tenant disputes. It also handles cases involving claims up to a certain monetary amount. 

High Court 

The High Court hears more complex and high-value civil cases. It also deals with appeals from the County Court and has specialist divisions that handle specific cases. 

How can Lawhive help?

At Lawhive, we’re here to help with civil matters, providing fast, affordable, expert legal support tailored to your needs. Our network of UK-based litigation solicitors specialise in various areas of civil law, including contract disputes, employment tribunal claims, personal injury matters, child custody matters, property disputes, and more. 

If you’re facing a civil dispute or need legal advice, our Legal Assessment Specialists are ready to help.

Get in touch with us for a free case evaluation and a quote for the services of a specialist lawyer. Whether you’re seeking compensation, resolving a contractual agreement, or sorting out family matters, we’re dedicated to providing clear guidance and effective solutions. 

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