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Common Questions

What's the difference between civil, family and criminal law?
Last reviewed in February 2023 by the Clicklaw Editors

Generally, law is described as either criminal or civil. All civil matters fall into one of two categories: general civil law and family law.
General 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.

Good starting points include:
  • Courts of BC site from the Justice Education Society of BC is a website that explains civil law in a section called "Justice System".

Administrative Law is a form of general 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).

Good starting points include:

  • Administrative Law BC from the Justice Education Society of BC, is a website that explains what administrative law is and provides a directory of over 100 tribunals and agencies, and further help.
Family Law
Family law generally involves issues that have to be decided when an intimate relationship breaks down, and can also involve child care matters. These are technically civil law issues as well but there are rules and court forms that are 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.

Good starting points include:
  • Introduction to Family Law from People's Law School gives an overview of topics such as common problems, related laws, and words and phrases.
  • Introduction to the Legal System for Family Matters in JP Boyd on Family Law provides information on the courts of British Columbia, including the types of claims heard in each court.
  • Family Law in BC website from Legal Aid BC 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. To learn more about the criminal law process.

Good starting points include:
civil law, family law, administrative law, criminal law, different kinds of courts, defending yourself, contracts, wills, property, personal injury, administrative tribunals