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Public law and private law.

We have seen that the meaning of the term `common law' depends on the context in which it is used. The same is true of the term `civil law.' In the Canadian legal system, law can be divided by subject matter into three branches: civil, criminal and administrative. In this context, the term 'civil law' does not refer to the distinction between the common-law tradition and the Quebec Civil Code. It refers to the distinction between the law that governs relationships between individuals, called private law, and the law that governs the individual's relationship to the state, called public law.

For example, suppose a drunken driver bas caused the death of an individual. The police, acting for the state, may arrest and charge the driver. These charges would be laid under the Criminal Code, a statute enacted by the federal Parliament in 1892 and amended frequently since. The Criminal Code, a segment of public law, would apply because the driver's action is regarded as a wrong againt the whole community, deserving punishment through the criminal law process.

In serious criminal charges, the accused is entitled to ask for a jury trial. If convicted, he or she can be sentenced to pay a fine and/or serve a jail term. The fine would not go to the victim's family, but to the state; the criminal process focuses on punishing the accused, not compensating the victims of crime.

The victim's family could, however, also file a civil action -- a taw suit -- for damages. They would be exercising their rights under private law. If the family (called the plaintiff) can prove that the person being sued (the defendant) committed a serious wrong against them, the court can then order that person to pay compensation for any suffering or economic loss the plaintiffs have endured, including the plaintiffs legal costs. In the common-law provinces, jury trials are rare in civil actions for damages and are not permitted under the Quebec Civil Code.

Some provinces have passed legislation so that victims of crime may receive compensation for their losses and suffering without having to bring a civil law suit. Once the accused has been convicted, the victim of the crime may apply to a specialized agency that will assess the damages and award compensation to be paid from government funds. These criminal injury compensation boards are another example of an administrative tribunal and are an extension of public law. As in many areas of administrative law, there are points of dispute between private individuals which arc part public and part private. In such cases the state may step in to regulate aspects of the matter.
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Title Annotation:civil law and criminal law
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Dec 1, 1995
Previous Article:Common law and legislation.
Next Article:The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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