Getting Help and Helping Yourself

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Law

Whilst Trading Standards mainly deals with criminal law, much of civil law relies on the complainant taking steps themselves to sort out an issue. So what exactly is the difference between the two?

Criminal Law

Criminal Law defines what constitutes a criminal offence. For example, if a trader engages in a misleading practice or sells counterfeit goods, they may commit a criminal offence. By committing a criminal offence the trader runs the risk of prosecution, subject to our enforcement policy.

Offences deemed ‘criminal’, rather than ‘civil’, tends to be ones where breaking them is thought to be detrimental to society as a whole and its functioning, rather than issues that are mainly between individuals or an individual and a company. Trading Standards officers enforce breaches of most criminal consumer law.

Civil Law

Civil Law describes the responsibilities we all have towards one another.

A common example of civil law is the law relating to contract, i.e. a legally binding agreement between two parties to do something or provide goods, usually in exchange for money. The most frequent consumer contracts are when we buy goods or services. For example, if you ask a trader to install some windows and they do a bad job, they may well be in breach of contract.

They have not committed a criminal offence but the law would require that they remedy the situation. If they do not do so, you can take action against the trader for compensation in the civil courts. Citizens Advice Consumer Service can provide advice on how to do this and what you could do in order to try and resolve a dispute. You can contact Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 03454 040506 or 0208 1850710.

Trading Standards officers cannot normally investigate individual cases of breach of contract where there is no criminal offence. Anyone who wishes to enforce a civil law obligation must take action themselves through the civil court system.

However, if there is a trader who consistently ignores civil law obligations, such as always refusing to give a refund even when it is clear the customer is in the right, Trading Standards officers may be able to take some action. We have powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 to obtain an undertaking from a business or anyone running a business, requiring them to stop such activity. If they break such an undertaking, action can be taken against them. Because of this, Trading Standards officers monitor all consumer complaints we receive both directly and through the advice service, Citizens Advice Consumer Service.

Another common example of civil law is The Law of Tort. This relates to the duty of care members of the public have towards each other. For example, if a person causes harm to another, through their own negligence, they may be liable to pay damages arising from that harm. For example, a motor vehicle collision, where one person’s negligence causes damage to property or injury to another. No one here may have committed a crime (such as drink driving), but it is still likely to be the duty of the negligent party (or their insurance company) to compensate the other person.

Check out the rest of our Getting Help & Helping Yourself section to find out more about what actions you can take under civil law.