Civil law is the branch of law dealing with disputes between individuals or organizations, in which compensation may be awarded to the victim.
For instance, if a car crash victim claims damages against the driver for loss or injury sustained in an accident, this will be a civil law case. Civil law differs from criminal law, which emphasizes more upon punishment than on dispute resolution. The law relating to civil wrongs and quasi-contracts is part of the civil law.
In common law, civil law is the area of laws and justice which affect individual legal status. Civil law, in this sense, is usually referred to in comparison to criminal law, which is the body of law involving the state against individuals (including legal persons such as corporations and Non-Profit Organizations, other than physical human beings), where the state relies on power given by statutory law. Civil law can be compared to military law, administrative law and constitutional law (the laws governing the political and law making process), and international law. When there are legal options for actions caused by individuals within any of these areas of law, it becomes civil law.
Civil law courts provide a forum for deciding disputes involving tort (such as accidents, negligence, and libel), contract disputes, the probate of wills, trusts, property disputes, administrative law, commercial law, and any other private matters that involve private parties and other groups including government institutions. An action by an individual (or legal equivalent) against the attorney general is a civil matter, but when the state, being represented by the prosecutor for the attorney general, or some other agent for the state, takes action against an individual (or legal equivalent, including for example, a department of the government), this is public law, not civil law.
The objectives of civil law are different from other types of law. In civil law there is the attempt to right a wrong, fulfil obligations set in place by an agreement, or settle a dispute. If there is a victim, they get compensation, and the culprit pays, somewhat based upon the principle of 'an eye for an eye' but in a civil and sophisticated manner, as opposed to full-fledged revenge. If it is an equity matter, there is often a pie for division and it gets allocated by a process of civil law, possibly invoking the doctrines of equity. In public law the objective is usually deterrence, and retribution.
An action in criminal law does not necessarily preclude an action in civil law in common law countries, and may provide a mechanism for compensation to the victims of crime. Such a situation occurred when O.J. Simpson was ordered to pay damages for wrongful death after being acquitted of the criminal charge of murder.
Civil law in common law countries usually refers to both common law and the law of equity, which while now merged in administration, have different traditions, and have historically operated to different doctrines, although this dualism is increasingly being set aside so there is one coherent body of law centered around common principles of law.
Difference from criminal law
In many countries such as the USA and UK, criminal law has to prove that a party is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt when a case verdict is reached in court. Civil law operates differently, as the UK standard is only to prove guilt on the basis of a balance of probability. In civil law cases, the "burden of proof" requires the plaintiff to convince the trier of fact (whether judge or jury) of the plaintiff's entitlement to the relief sought. This means that the plaintiff must prove each element of the claim, or cause of action, in order to recover.