Define: Civil Offence

Civil Offence
Civil Offence
Quick Summary of Civil Offence

A civil offence refers to an act of wrongdoing that causes harm to another person, but it is not considered a criminal offence. Instead of being incarcerated, the individual responsible for the wrongdoing may be required to provide monetary compensation to the victim. This compensation is known as a tort. Torts can be categorized into intentional torts, which involve deliberate harm, and negligent torts, which occur due to carelessness rather than intent. Additionally, there are instances where the government can commit a wrongful act that causes harm to an individual, known as a government tort.

What is the dictionary definition of Civil Offence?
Dictionary Definition of Civil Offence

A civil offence refers to a non-contractual wrongdoing that can be remedied, typically through the payment of damages. It involves a breach of duty imposed by the law on individuals who share a specific relationship. For instance, if a driver negligently causes an accident, they commit a civil offence. The injured party can file a lawsuit against the driver to seek compensation for their injuries and losses. Unlike a criminal offence, a civil offence does not involve a criminal act but can still harm another person. Its purpose is to provide a legal recourse for those who have suffered harm due to someone else’s actions.

Full Definition Of Civil Offence

A civil offence, in British law, is an act or omission that results in harm or injury to an individual or a breach of contract that is remedied through civil litigation. Unlike criminal offences, which are prosecuted by the state and can lead to imprisonment, civil offences usually involve private disputes between individuals or entities where the remedy is typically financial compensation or specific performance rather than punishment.

Historical Background

The distinction between civil and criminal law has roots in the historical development of the British legal system. Civil law evolved from the need to resolve disputes between private parties, drawing from Roman law principles and the common law tradition. The common law, developed through judicial decisions, established precedents that shaped modern civil law. Over time, statutes have been enacted to codify certain aspects of civil law, creating a more structured and predictable legal framework.

Key Concepts in Civil Law

Tort Law

Tort law addresses wrongs that cause harm to individuals, and it is one of the primary categories of civil offences. The main types of torts include:

  1. Negligence: Occurs when a person fails to exercise a reasonable standard of care, resulting in harm to another. For example, a driver not paying attention to the road and causing an accident.
  2. Intentional Torts: Actions taken with the intent to cause harm, such as assault, battery, false imprisonment, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
  3. Strict Liability: Applies to cases where liability is imposed without fault, typically in situations involving inherently dangerous activities or defective products.

Contract Law

Contract law governs agreements between parties. A breach of contract occurs when one party fails to fulfil their obligations under the contract, leading to a civil offence. Key elements of a contract include:

  1. Offer and Acceptance: One party makes an offer, and the other accepts.
  2. Consideration: There must be something of value exchanged between the parties.
  3. Intention to Create Legal Relations: The parties must intend for the agreement to be legally binding.
  4. Capacity: The parties must have the legal capacity to enter into the contract.
  5. Legality: The contract’s purpose must be legal.

Property Law

Property law deals with disputes over the ownership and use of property. This includes:

  1. Real Property: Land and anything attached to it, such as buildings.
  2. Personal Property: Moveable items not attached to land.
  3. Intellectual Property: Creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, and images used in commerce.

Family Law

Family law encompasses legal issues related to family relationships, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and support obligations. Disputes in family law are typically resolved through civil proceedings, aiming to protect the interests of all parties involved, especially children.

Civil Procedure

Initiating a Civil Claim

To initiate a civil claim, the claimant (plaintiff) must file a claim form with the appropriate court. The form outlines the nature of the dispute, and the remedy sought. The defendant is then served with the claim form and allowed to respond.

Pre-Trial Process

Before a trial, parties may engage in:

  1. Disclosure: Exchange of relevant documents and evidence.
  2. Witness Statements: Written accounts from witnesses detailing their testimony.
  3. Expert Reports: Opinions from experts in relevant fields.
  4. Pre-Trial Conferences: Meetings to discuss the case and attempt to reach a settlement.


If the case proceeds to trial, both parties present their evidence and arguments before a judge (sometimes a jury). The judge then decides based on the balance of probabilities, meaning the claim is more likely than not to be true.


The primary remedies in civil cases include:

  1. Damages: Financial compensation for losses suffered.
  2. Injunctions: Court orders preventing a party from doing something or requiring them to do something.
  3. Specific Performance: An order requiring a party to fulfil their contractual obligations.
  4. Declaratory Judgements: Statements of the legal rights and obligations of the parties.

Defences in Civil Cases

Defendants in civil cases can raise various defences, such as:

  1. Contributory Negligence: Arguing that the claimant was partly responsible for their own harm.
  2. Consent: Claiming that the claimant consented to the action that caused the harm.
  3. Illegality: Asserting that the claimant’s claim arises from an illegal act.
  4. Limitation Periods: Highlighting that the claim was brought outside the legally prescribed time limits.

Notable Civil Offence Cases in British Law

Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562

This landmark case established the modern law of negligence. Mrs. Donoghue became ill after drinking ginger beer containing a decomposed snail. She sued the manufacturer, Mr. Stevenson, and the House of Lords held that manufacturers owe a duty of care to their products’ ultimate consumers.

Hadley v Baxendale (1854), 9 Exch. 341

This case set the precedent for determining damages in breach of contract cases. The court established the principle that damages should be those that arise naturally from the breach or were in the contemplation of the parties at the time the contract was made.

Rylands v Fletcher [1868] UKHL 1

The Rylands v Fletcher case established the principle of strict liability for landowners. The defendant was held liable for damage caused by water escaping from their reservoir despite having taken reasonable care to prevent it.

Reforms and Developments in Civil Law

Over the years, various reforms have been introduced to improve the efficiency and accessibility of the civil justice system. Notable reforms include:

The Woolf Reforms (1999)

Named after Lord Woolf, these reforms aimed to make the civil justice system more accessible and efficient. Key changes included:

  1. The Civil Procedure Rules (CPR): are a single set of rules governing civil litigation in England and Wales.
  2. Case Management: Judges were more responsible for managing cases to reduce delays and costs.
  3. Pre-Action Protocols: Encouraging parties to exchange information and settle disputes before commencing litigation.

The Jackson Reforms (2013)

These reforms, led by Lord Justice Jackson, focused on controlling litigation costs. Key changes included:

  1. Cost Management: Introduction of cost budgeting to manage legal costs more effectively.
  2. Proportionality: Costs must be proportionate to the value of the claim.
  3. Conditional Fee Arrangements (CFAs): Changes to the rules governing “no win, no fee” arrangements.

Comparative Perspective: Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

The distinction between civil and criminal law is fundamental to the legal system. Key differences include:

  1. Purpose: Civil law aims to resolve disputes and provide remedies, while criminal law seeks to punish and deter wrongful conduct.
  2. Parties: In civil cases, the parties are private individuals or entities. In criminal cases, the prosecution is typically brought by the state.
  3. Burden of Proof: Civil cases are decided on the balance of probabilities, whereas criminal cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
  4. Outcome: Civil cases often result in financial compensation or specific performance, while criminal cases can result in fines, community service, or imprisonment.

The Role of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

To alleviate the burden on the courts and provide more flexible and efficient dispute resolution mechanisms, various forms of ADR have been developed, including:


A neutral mediator helps the parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediation is voluntary and non-binding until an agreement is reached.


A neutral arbitrator hears the evidence and makes a binding decision. Arbitration is often used in commercial disputes.


Like mediation, the conciliator may play a more active role in suggesting settlement terms.

Impact of Technology on Civil Law

The advent of technology has significantly impacted civil law, leading to both opportunities and challenges:

  1. Online Dispute Resolution (ODR): Platforms for resolving disputes online, offering greater accessibility and efficiency.
  2. Electronic Filing: Courts have implemented electronic systems for filing documents, reducing paperwork and streamlining processes.
  3. Digital Evidence: The rise of digital evidence, such as emails and social media posts, has introduced new complexities in civil litigation.


Civil offences encompass a broad range of disputes, from personal injuries and breaches of contract to property disputes and family matters. The British legal system provides a structured framework for resolving these disputes through the courts, guided by principles of fairness and justice. Reforms and technological advancements continue to shape the landscape of civil law, striving to make it more accessible, efficient, and responsive to the needs of society. Understanding the intricacies of civil offences and the mechanisms for addressing them is essential for anyone involved in or affected by civil litigation.

Civil Offence FAQ'S

A civil offence refers to a non-criminal act that violates civil laws or regulations. It typically involves disputes between individuals or entities, such as breach of contract, personal injury claims, or property disputes.

The main difference is that a civil offence is not considered a crime and does not result in criminal charges or penalties, such as imprisonment. Instead, civil offences are resolved through civil litigation and may result in monetary damages or other remedies.

To file a civil offence claim, you typically need to initiate a lawsuit by drafting a complaint and filing it with the appropriate court. It is advisable to consult with an attorney who specialises in civil law to guide you through the process.

In a civil offence case, the burden of proof is generally lower than in a criminal case. The plaintiff (the party bringing the claim) must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the alleged offence.

Yes, in civil law, intent is not always a requirement for liability. Some civil offences, such as negligence or strict liability, do not require intent. If your actions or omissions caused harm or violated a duty of care, you may still be held liable.

If found liable for a civil offence, you may be required to pay monetary damages to the injured party. The amount of damages will depend on various factors, such as the extent of harm caused and any economic losses suffered by the plaintiff.

Yes, civil offence cases can often be settled out of court through negotiation or alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation or arbitration. Settlements allow parties to reach a mutually agreeable resolution without going through a full trial.

Yes, if you are dissatisfied with the outcome of a civil offence case, you generally have the right to appeal the decision to a higher court. However, specific procedures and deadlines must be followed, so it is crucial to consult with an attorney to navigate the appeals process.

Yes, a statute of limitations typically sets a time limit within which a civil offence claim must be filed. The specific time limit varies depending on the nature of the offence and the jurisdiction, so it is important to consult with an attorney to ensure compliance with the applicable statute of limitations.

Yes, you have the right to represent yourself in a civil offence case, but it is generally advisable to seek legal representation. Civil law can be complex, and having an experienced attorney can significantly increase your chances of success and ensure that your rights are protected throughout the process.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 16th June 2024.

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