What’s the difference between civil, family, and criminal law?

Last reviewed June 2024 by the Clicklaw editors

Generally, law is described as either criminal or civil. All civil matters in court fall into one of two categories — civil law and family law.

Civil Law

Civil law deals with disputes between people or organizations. Civil law disputes can be about contracts, wills, property, personal injury, and so on. An example of a civil dispute is when one person owes another person money.

Helpful information

  • Courts of BC (Justice Education Society of BC): This website explains civil law in a section called “Justice System.”

Administrative Law

Administrative law is a form of civil law that involves a dispute between a person or organization and a government agency. Two examples of government agencies are the Residential Tenancy Branch and the Labour Relations Board of BC. Some administrative law cases ask for a review of a government decision at a hearing of a board or tribunal.

Helpful information

  • Administrative Law BC (Justice Education Society of BC): This website explains what administrative law is and provides a directory of over 100 tribunals and agencies. It also lists resources that can help.

Family Law

Family law generally involves issues that must be decided when an intimate relationship breaks down. It can also involve childcare matters. These are technically civil law issues too, but there are rules and court forms specific to family law. Examples of family law issues include how to divide property between separating spouses, where children will live, and how family members will be financially supported.

Helpful information

  • Introduction to Family Law (People’s Law School): This page gives an overview of topics such as common problems, related laws, and words and phrases.
  • Introduction to the Legal System for Family Matters (JP Boyd on Family Law): This chapter provides information on the courts of British Columbia, including the types of claims heard in each court.
  • Family Law in BC (Legal Aid BC): This website has a wide range of family law information from basic fact sheets to self-help kits to complete court forms.

Criminal Law

Everyone in Canada must obey Canadian criminal laws, most of which are found in the Criminal Code of Canada. If someone breaks one of these laws they can be charged with a criminal offence. The government, usually referred to as “the Crown,” takes them to court. An example of a criminal offence is shoplifting. The criminal law process is very different from civil law.

Helpful information