Define: Wrong

Quick Summary of Wrong

A violation, by one individual, of another individual’s legal rights.

The idea of rights suggests the opposite idea of wrongs, for every right is capable of being violated. For example, a right to receive payment for goods sold implies a wrong on the part of the person who owes, but does not make payment. In the most general point of view, the law is intended to establish and maintain rights, yet in its everyday application, the law must deal with rights and wrongs. The law first fixes the character and definition of rights, and then seeks to secure these rights by defining wrongs and devising the means to prevent these wrongs or provide for their redress.

The criminal law is charged with preventing and punishing public wrongs. Public wrongs are violations of public rights and duties that affect the whole community.

A private wrong, also called a civil wrong, is a violation of public or private rights that injures an individual and consequently is subject to civil redress or compensation. A civil wrong that is not based on breach of contract is a tort. Torts include assault, battery, libel, slander, intentional infliction of mental distress, and damage to property. The same act or omission that makes a tort may also be a breach of contract, but it is the negligence, not the breaking of the contract, that is the tort. For example, if a lawyer is negligent in representing his client, the lawyer may be sued both for malpractice, which is a tort, and for breach of the attorney-client contract.

The word wrongful is attached to numerous types of injurious conduct. For example, wrongful death is a type of lawsuit brought on behalf of a deceased person’s beneficiaries that alleges that the death was attributable to the willful or negligent conduct of another. However, even in these special contexts, the words wrong, wrongful, and wrongfully do not sharply delineate the exact nature of the wrongness. Their presence merely signifies that something bad has occurred.

What is the dictionary definition of Wrong?
Dictionary Definition of Wrong

In a legal context, “wrong” generally refers to an act or behaviour that is considered unlawful, unethical, or in violation of legal or moral principles. Wrongs may encompass a wide range of actions, including civil wrongs (torts) such as negligence, defamation, or breach of contract, as well as criminal wrongs such as assault, theft, or fraud. Determining whether an action constitutes a wrong depends on various factors, including applicable laws, regulations, and societal norms. Legal remedies are available to address wrongs, such as compensation for damages in civil cases or criminal penalties in cases involving violations of criminal law. Additionally, wrongs may give rise to legal claims or causes of action, allowing aggrieved parties to seek redress through the legal system. Overall, the concept of wrong is fundamental to the administration of justice and the protection of individual rights and interests in society.

Full Definition Of Wrong

In the realm of British law, the concept of ‘wrong’ is pivotal. It encompasses a broad spectrum of unlawful acts and omissions that breach the legal rights of individuals or the state. Understanding ‘wrong’ is essential for comprehending the foundation of both criminal and civil law. This legal overview will delve into the multifaceted nature of ‘wrong’, exploring its definitions, classifications, and implications within the British legal system.

Definitions and Classifications of Wrong


In British law, ‘wrong’ refers to any act or omission that infringes upon the legal rights of another individual or the state, resulting in harm or injury. Wrongs are broadly categorized into civil wrongs (torts) and criminal wrongs (crimes).

Civil Wrongs (Torts)

Civil wrongs, or torts, are breaches of civil duties owed to individuals. They give rise to private legal actions, allowing the injured party to seek compensation. Key types of torts include:

  1. Negligence: The failure to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to another person. For example, a driver who fails to stop at a red light and causes an accident is negligent.
  2. Trespass: Unlawful interference with someone’s person, property, or rights. Trespass can be to the person (assault and battery), to goods, or to land.
  3. Defamation: The publication of a false statement that injures a person’s reputation. Defamation is further divided into libel (written statements) and slander (spoken statements).
  4. Nuisance: Acts that unlawfully interfere with a person’s use or enjoyment of their property. Nuisance can be public (affecting the community) or private (affecting an individual).
  5. Strict Liability: Certain activities are deemed so hazardous that those conducting them are liable for any resultant harm, regardless of fault. An example is the rule in Rylands v Fletcher, where the defendant was held liable for damage caused by a reservoir breach.

Criminal Wrongs (Crimes)

Criminal wrongs, or crimes, are breaches of duties owed to the state and society. They are prosecuted by the state and can result in penalties such as fines, imprisonment, or community service. Major categories of crimes include:

  1. Offences Against the Person: Crimes that cause harm to individuals, such as murder, manslaughter, assault, and battery.
  2. Offences Against Property: Crimes that involve interference with the property rights of individuals or entities, including theft, burglary, arson, and criminal damage.
  3. Fraud and Dishonesty: Acts involving deceit for personal or financial gain, such as fraud, forgery, and embezzlement.
  4. Public Order Offences: Acts that disrupt public peace and safety, including riot, affray, and violent disorder.
  5. Drug Offences: Activities related to the illegal possession, distribution, or production of controlled substances.

Legal Principles and Doctrines

Mens Rea and Actus Reus

In both civil and criminal law, understanding the mental and physical elements of a wrong is crucial.

  • Mens Rea: The mental element, or ‘guilty mind’, refers to the defendant’s intention or recklessness in committing the act. In criminal law, establishing mens rea is vital for proving guilt.
  • Actus Reus: The physical element, or ‘guilty act’, is the actual conduct or omission that constitutes the wrongful act. In tort law, actus reus is necessary to establish liability.

Vicarious Liability

Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine whereby one party is held liable for the wrongful acts of another. This principle is often applied in employer-employee relationships, where employers can be held responsible for the torts committed by their employees during the course of employment.

Strict Liability

Strict liability applies to certain torts and crimes where proving fault or negligence is not necessary. The mere occurrence of the wrongful act is sufficient to establish liability. This principle is particularly relevant in areas such as product liability and regulatory offences.

Defences to Wrong

Defendants in civil and criminal cases can invoke various defences to avoid liability. Common defences include:

  1. Consent: If the plaintiff consented to the act that caused the harm, the defendant may not be liable. This is often used in cases of physical contact sports or medical procedures.
  2. Self-Defence: In criminal law, a defendant may argue that they acted in self-defence to protect themselves or others from imminent harm.
  3. Necessity: This defence applies when the defendant argues that their wrongful act was necessary to prevent greater harm.
  4. Contributory Negligence: In tort law, if the plaintiff contributed to their own harm through their negligence, their compensation may be reduced.
  5. Insanity: In criminal cases, the defendant may plead insanity if they are incapable of understanding the nature of their actions due to a mental disorder.

Civil Wrong Procedures

Filing a Claim

To initiate a civil claim, the injured party (plaintiff) must file a claim form with the appropriate court, outlining the nature of the wrong and the relief sought. This process includes paying a court fee and serving the claim on the defendant.

Pre-Trial Proceedings

Pre-trial procedures aim to clarify the issues in dispute and encourage settlement. They include:

  1. Disclosure: Both parties must disclose relevant documents and evidence to each other.
  2. Case Management: The court may hold case management conferences to set timelines and directions for the trial.
  3. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): The court may encourage or require parties to engage in ADR methods, such as mediation or arbitration, to resolve the dispute without a full trial.


During the trial, both parties present their evidence and arguments. The burden of proof in civil cases lies with the plaintiff, who must prove their case on the balance of probabilities. After hearing the evidence, the judge will deliver a verdict and, if necessary, determine the appropriate remedy.


Remedies in tort law aim to compensate the injured party and may include:

  1. Damages: Monetary compensation for losses suffered. Damages can be compensatory (to cover actual losses) or punitive (to punish the defendant and deter future wrongs).
  2. Injunctions: are court orders requiring the defendant to do or refrain from doing a specific act.
  3. Specific Performance: In contract law, the court may order the defendant to fulfil their contractual obligations.

Criminal Wrong Procedures

Investigation and Arrest

When a crime is suspected, law enforcement agencies investigate to gather evidence. If sufficient evidence exists, they may arrest the suspect. The suspect is then brought before a magistrate for an initial hearing.

Charging and Prosecution

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reviews the evidence and decides whether to charge the suspect. If charged, the case proceeds to court. The defendant is entitled to legal representation and may plead guilty or not guilty.


Criminal trials are either heard in the Magistrates’ Court (for less serious offences) or the Crown Court (for serious offences). The prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial involves:

  1. Opening Statements: Both the prosecution and defence present their cases.
  2. Presentation of Evidence: Witnesses are called, and evidence is presented.
  3. Cross-examination: Both parties question the witnesses.
  4. Closing Arguments: Both parties summarise their cases.
  5. Verdict: The judge or jury delivers a verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will determine the sentence.


Sentences in criminal cases aim to punish the offender, deter future crimes, rehabilitate the offender, and protect the public. Sentences may include imprisonment, fines, community orders, or other penalties.

Key Cases and Statutes

Landmark Cases

  1. Donoghue v Stevenson (1932): Established the modern law of negligence, introducing the ‘neighbour principle’ which requires individuals to take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that could foreseeably harm others.
  2. R v Cunningham (1957): Defined recklessness in criminal law, establishing that a person is reckless if they foresee a risk and nonetheless act.
  3. Rylands v Fletcher (1868): Established strict liability for harm caused by non-natural use of land.

Important Statutes

  1. The Theft Act 1968: Defines theft and other offences related to dishonesty.
  2. The Offences Against the Person Act 1861: Consolidates laws relating to offences causing bodily harm.
  3. The Criminal Damage Act 1971: Addresses offences related to the destruction or damage of property.
  4. The Defamation Act 2013: Modernises and clarifies the law of defamation.


The concept of ‘wrong’ is integral to the British legal system, underpinning both civil and criminal law. Civil wrongs, or torts, involve breaches of duties owed to individuals, resulting in private legal actions for compensation. Criminal wrongs, or crimes, are breaches of duties owed to the state and society, leading to prosecution and potential penalties. Understanding the definitions, classifications, legal principles, and procedures associated with wrong is essential for navigating the complexities of British law. Landmark cases and key statutes further illustrate the application and evolution of legal doctrines in this area. By comprehensively addressing the nature and consequences of wrong, the British legal system seeks to uphold justice, protect rights, and maintain social order.

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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: 9th June 2024.

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