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In reference to law, “civil” is used primarily as a descriptive term to denote conflicts between private individuals. Where in a civil case two or more individuals or private entities (such as corporations) dispute their rights relative to each other (such as in a contract or a tort), a criminal case involves the government attempting on behalf of its citizens to punish a person for violating its criminal law.  

Some common uses of the term “civil” in a legal sense include:

  • Civil code” is the portion of federal or state statutes governing the legal relationships between individuals, such as obligations arising from contracts.  
  • While the termcivil law” is sometimes used to mean the same thing, that term also means a system of legal concepts mirroring the system of law in place in ancient Rome, as distinguished from common law systems, which are derived from the English legal tradition.
  • Civil liability” means the non-criminal legal obligations that arise out of an individual’s dealings with others. 
  • “Civil remedies” usually refers to relief available to a plaintiff in a civil case.  Common civil remedies include money damages and injunctions.
  • Civil rights” are the enforceable rights enjoyed by each citizen stemming from notions of equality, the violation of which creates a claim for injury.
  • As distinguished from civil rights, civil liberties is generally the term used to describe the rights and freedoms created by the US Constitution.
  • Civil procedure” is the broad term used for the rules used by a court as it conducts a civil case from its inception through the trial.  
  • Civil forfeiture” is the act of seizure by a government of property owned by someone suspected of a crime.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]