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Crimes vs Torts

Two fundamental concepts govern how society addresses wrongful conduct and seeks justice: crimes and torts. Crimes are violations of criminal laws that result in prosecution by the government and can lead to criminal penalties, while torts are civil wrongs that involve private disputes between individuals or entities and result in monetary compensation for the injured party.

Nature of Wrongful Conduct

Crimes are actions that are prohibited by criminal laws enacted by the government. These laws define what behaviours are considered criminal and outline the penalties for those behaviours. Crimes are considered offences against society as a whole because they disrupt the peace and order of the community. Examples of crimes include theft, assault, murder, and drug trafficking.

By contrast, torts are civil wrongs that harm individuals or entities. These wrongs may not necessarily violate a specific statute, but they involve actions or negligence that result in harm to another party. Torts are considered private wrongs because they involve disputes between individuals or entities, and the primary aim is to compensate the injured party. Examples of torts include negligence (e.g., car accidents), defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Parties Involved

In a criminal case, the government, represented by a prosecutor, brings charges against the defendant on behalf of society. The victim in a criminal case is usually considered a witness for the prosecution, and the state bears the burden of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a tort case, the injured party (plaintiff or claimant) initiates the lawsuit against the alleged wrongdoer (defendant). The plaintiff seeks compensation for the harm or losses they have suffered due to the defendant's actions or negligence. Unlike in criminal cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving their case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that the defendant's actions caused harm.

Burden of Proof

The prosecution in a criminal case must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It requires the prosecution to prove the case to the extent that there is no reasonable doubt in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant committed the crime charged. This is a very high standard of proof, requiring a near certainty of the defendant's guilt.

However, in civil tort cases, the plaintiff only needs to establish his case by a balance of probabilities, also known as a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that the defendant's actions or negligence caused harm. It is a lower standard of proof compared to the criminal standard.


Penalties for criminal offences can be severe and may include imprisonment, fines, probation, community service, or even the death penalty in some jurisdictions. The primary aim of criminal penalties is to punish and deter wrongdoing.

In tort cases, the primary remedy is monetary compensation (damages) awarded to the injured party. These damages are intended to make the plaintiff whole by covering their financial losses, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other harm caused by the defendant's actions. The focus is on compensating the victim rather than punishing the wrongdoer.

In summary, crimes involve violations of criminal laws, are prosecuted by the government, and focus on punishment and deterrence. Torts involve civil wrongs, are initiated by the injured party, and focus on compensating the victim for harm suffered. The burden of proof, penalties, and purposes of these two areas of law differ significantly.

You can learn more about these topics with our Criminal Law and Tort Law notes.

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