Civil Law 101: The Basic Facts You Need to Know


Did you know that in 2019, civil law filings rose 3% in the US Court system?

Many Americans, unfortunately, are far too unfamiliar with our legal system and how it functions. Thanks to the sensationalist Hollywood and news media, too many Americans associate our court system with criminal law.

The truth is, civil law is the backbone of our American legal system.

As a citizen, you must be familiar with civil law and use it to your advantage. Are you ready to learn more about your rights? Check out our guide on the American civil legal system.

What is Civil Law?

There are two types of law practiced, criminal and civil. When discussing civil law vs. criminal law, you have to know what they encompass and their purpose in our legal system.

Criminal Law

Criminal law functions as a punitive measure for people who commit acts society deems undesirable. Think murder, drug trafficking, or any other act society and the government believe threaten safety and welfare.

Citizens accused of criminal acts are arrested and put on trial. If convicted, their punishment serves as a deterrent to future crimes.

Civil Law

Civil law functions to settle legal disputes between two parties. These legal disputes could involve property, personal injury, contracts, and employment and are the domain of companies like Townsville lawyers.

In criminal law, a governmental body prosecutes the defendant. Civil cases are often cases between private citizens or private entities, though there have been many cases where the government serves as a defendant.

These cases involve remuneration, disputed wages, contract disputes, injury liability payments or, if a matter of family law, matters such as child custody. In civil law cases, the plaintiff files a suit against a defendant they believe owes them money or compensation.

The Four Categories of Civil Law

Civil law functions under four main categories. These categories encompass a wide range of disputes. Understanding the classifications and knowing what cases they cover will give you a deeper understanding of our legal system.

Contract Law

These cases deal with agreements between two parties. A contract is a binding legal document where each party agrees on specific actions and obligations.

For example, you hire a roofing company to put a new roof on your home. You and the company agree on the price and timeline before construction begins, with construction starting the upcoming Monday.

You pay the money upfront, but construction doesn’t start on the anticipated date. Two weeks later, construction has not yet begun. The roofing company is in breach of contract.

As such, you are due a refund. The company refuses to return your money, so you have to hire a civil law attorney and take them to court.

Tort Law

A tort is negligence or wrongdoing that results in property damage and/or personal injury. Tort lawsuits seek compensation for damages suffered.

There are three different types of torts: negligence, intentional, and strict liability.

  • Negligence: These cases involve a breach of duty that causes injury and/or lost money
  • Intentional: These cases involve a deliberate dereliction of duty causing bodily harm and lost compensation
  • Strict Liability: This involves a party’s duty to ensure the safety and well-being of others

Arguably, the most famous tort case is the 1994 McDonald’s “hot coffee” suit. Stella Lieback sued McDonald’s because the coffee they served caused third-degree burns on her legs and genitals.

This case made national news, but for all the wrong reasons. The media used the case as an example of a frivolous tort suit. Yet, further inspection of the specifics shows that to be untrue.

Lieback won the case because McDonald’s knew their coffee, served at a ridiculous 190°F, was dangerous.

Property Law

Property law includes both real estate and personal property. It also includes stocks, bonds, and concepts like copyrights and patents.

These fall under two different concepts: trespass and conversion.

  • Trespass: Trespass refers to either the plaintiff’s right to possession and use of personal property or use without their consent
  • Conversion: Cases where the defendant uses personal property without permission and deprives the plaintiff use

A famous example of conversion property law in action is the suit levied against former Beatle George Harrison for his song “My Sweet Lord.”

The hit song was so similar to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons. The songwriter and publisher filed suit for damages. They won, and Harrison had to pay $1,599,987 in damages.

Family Law

Both marriages and divorces are legal procedures. So are child support payments. These contracts and disputes related to all things family belong to family law. 
If you are facing any family law issue, it is crucial that you secure the services of an experienced family law lawyer denver co (or family law attorney in your area). They will ensure that your rights are fully protected and your case is resolved in your favor as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Family law courts operated separately from other civil courts. In many disputes, there is not a defined “wrongdoing”. A great example is a no-fault divorce. 

Why is Civil Law So Important?

Decisions involving contracts, liability, and political contributions all set precedents. These precedents change the nature of our legal interactions.

A case like Citizens United v. FEC set forth reverberations in our political system still felt today. Murphy v. NCAA allowed states to legalize sports gambling, and a billion-dollar industry sprung up overnight.

What does a civil attorney do? They push against wrongdoing through legal action, and that action often results in a more equitable and just society.

Understanding Civil Law Means Knowing Your Rights

The beauty of the American legal system is that everyone is supposed to have equal access.

Civil law allows private citizens of modest means to recover financial compensation for any wrongdoing, even from multi-billion dollar international corporations.

Understanding the law and how it works is the first step to protecting yourself. Do you need an expert civil attorney willing to take on your case? Attorney Chris P. Brandlin is the attorney for you.