civil law | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

In the American legal system, civil law refers to the body of law that deals with disputes between individuals or organizations, as opposed to criminal law, which deals with offenses against the state.

In the American legal system, civil law refers to the body of law that deals with disputes between individuals or organizations, as opposed to criminal law, which deals with offenses against the state. Civil law is essential in resolving conflicts and ensuring fair outcomes for the parties involved. This guide will explore various aspects of civil law, including its history, key principles, types of disputes, processes, and remedies.

I.  History of Civil Law in the United States

A. Origins

Civil law in the United States has its roots in English common law, which was adopted and modified by the original 13 colonies. As the United States developed, each state created its own set of civil laws, often drawing from a mix of common law and statute law.

B. Evolution

Over time, civil law has evolved to address changing societal needs, such as new technologies, advancements in science, and the emergence of new industries. Many landmark cases have shaped the development of civil law, creating legal precedents for future disputes.

II. Key Principles of Civil Law

A. Nature of Civil Disputes

Civil disputes typically arise from disagreements or conflicts between private parties, such as individuals, businesses, or organizations. These disputes may involve a wide range of issues, such as contracts, property, or personal injury.

B. Burden of Proof

In civil cases, the plaintiff carries the burden of proof, meaning they must present evidence to demonstrate that the defendant is liable for the alleged harm. The standard of proof in civil cases is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the plaintiff must show it is more likely than not that their claims are true.

C. Rights of the Parties

Both plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases have specific rights, including the right to legal representation, the right to a fair and impartial trial, and the right to appeal decisions.

III. Types of Civil Law Disputes

A. Contract Disputes

Contract disputes arise when one or more parties allege that another party has breached the terms of a written or oral agreement. Examples include disagreements over the quality of goods, non-payment for services, or disputes over the interpretation of contract terms.

B. Tort Claims

Tort claims involve allegations of harm caused by one party’s negligence, recklessness, or intentional actions. Common types of torts include personal injury, defamation, and product liability.

C. Property Disputes

Property disputes can involve disagreements over ownership, boundaries, or the use of property. Examples include landlord-tenant disputes, easement disputes, and disputes over property damage.

D. Family Law

Family law deals with matters related to marriage, divorce, child custody, and support. These disputes often involve complex emotional and financial issues, requiring specialized legal expertise.

E. Intellectual Property

Intellectual property disputes involve conflicts over patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. These cases often hinge on the protection of creative works, inventions, and brand identities.

F. Employment and Labor Law

Employment and labor law disputes arise between employers and employees or labor unions. Issues may include workplace discrimination, wrongful termination, wage and hour disputes, and collective bargaining agreements.

IV. The Civil Law Litigation Process

A. Pretrial Steps

Before a civil trial begins, parties typically engage in pretrial activities, such as filing a complaint, answering the complaint, conducting discovery, and participating in settlement negotiations or alternative dispute resolution methods.

B. Trial

If a civil dispute cannot be resolved through pretrial activities, the case proceeds to trial. Civil trials can be either bench trials, where a judge decides the outcome, or jury trials, where a jury of peers renders a verdict.

C. Post-Trial and Appeals

After the trial, the losing party may file post-trial motions or appeal the decision to a higher court. Appeals can be based on alleged errors in the trial court’s application of the law, procedural issues, or the introduction of new evidence.

V. Remedies in Civil Law

A. Damages

Damages are monetary awards granted to the plaintiff to compensate for losses or injuries caused by the defendant. There are several types of damages, including compensatory, consequential, and punitive damages.

B. Injunctions

Injunctions are court orders that require a party to perform or refrain from performing a specific act. They can be temporary, pending the outcome of a case, or permanent, depending on the circumstances.

C. Declaratory Judgments

Declaratory judgments are court rulings that define the rights and obligations of the parties involved in a dispute. They provide clarity and guidance, often preventing further litigation.

D. Specific Performance

Specific performance is a court order requiring a party to fulfill the terms of a contract. This remedy is generally granted when monetary damages would be insufficient to adequately compensate the injured party.

E. Rescission

Rescission is a remedy that allows a party to cancel or undo a contract due to fraud, mistake, or misrepresentation by the other party. This remedy restores the parties to their pre-contractual positions.

F. Reformation

Reformation is a remedy that allows a court to modify the terms of a contract to correct errors, ambiguities, or misrepresentations. This remedy is typically used when the parties’ intentions are clear, but the written contract does not accurately reflect those intentions.

VI. Limitations and Criticisms of Civil Law

A. Limitations of Civil Law

Civil law can be limited by factors such as strict statutes of limitations, which set time limits on when a claim can be filed. Additionally, parties may face challenges in enforcing judgments, especially across state or national borders.

B. Criticisms of Civil Law

Critics of the civil law system argue that it can be expensive, time-consuming, and overly adversarial. Some believe that alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation and arbitration, offer more efficient and collaborative means of resolving disputes.


Civil law plays a crucial role in the American legal system, offering a framework for resolving disputes between private parties. This comprehensive guide has explored its history, principles, types of disputes, processes, and remedies. Despite some limitations and criticisms, civil law remains essential in promoting fairness and justice for individuals and organizations alike.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/08/2023


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