Civil law has at least three meanings. It may connote an entire legal system, or either of two different bodies of law within a legal system:
- a legal system
- the set of rules governing relations between persons (either humans or legal personalities such as corporations); here the contrast is public law, especially criminal law;
- Secular law, as opposed to canon law or natural law.
As opposed to criminal law
Unlike criminal law, Civil law regulates relationships amongst persons and organizations. Civil law, in this sense, is usually referring to redress to civil law courts (as opposed to criminal courts) and is often used as a means to resolve disputes involving accidents (torts such as negligence), libel and other intentional torts, contract disputes, the probate of wills, and trusts, and any other private matters that can be resolved between private parties. Violations of civil law are considered to be torts or breaches of contract, rather than crimes. Depending upon the regional government, this field of law contains commercial law and some kinds of administrative law remedies, though sometimes administrative law judges adjudicate penal law violations such as parking tickets and other minor offenses.
Contractual law enforces contracts by allowing a party, whose rights have been violated or breached, to collect damages and penalties from a defendant. Where monetary damages are deemed insufficient, civil courts may offer other remedies; such as forbidding someone to do an act (eg; an injunction) or formally changing someone's legal status (eg; divorce or change of name). Civil lawsuits sometimes occur as a result of criminal action, and such a lawsuit can be successful even when the defendant was found not guilty under criminal law. Some civil lawsuits, such as under the civil provisions of the U.S. federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statutes, allow for a private right of action for damages when someone has suffered due to the violation of certain predicate crimes under federal law (such as wire and mail fraud and other specifically enumerated federal offenses).
As opposed to canon law
Civil law (as opposed to "canon law") is the secular legal system of the national government when there is also a system of ecclesiastical courts governed by a church's laws in the same country. This was the situation in England that repeatedly caused problems between the two legal systems, most famously perhaps the one that led to the murder of Thomas ŕ Becket during the reign of Henry II of England.
- David, René, and John E. C. Brierley. Major Legal Systems in the World Today: An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Law. 3d ed. London: Stevens, 1985 (ISBN 0420473408).
- MacQueen, Hector L. "Scots Law and the Road to the New Ius Commune (http://www.ejcl.org/44/art44-1.html)." Electronic Journal of Comparative Law 4, no. 4 (December 2000).