What is Civil Law?

When some people think of the legal profession, they often think of criminal law. This is not surprising, as there are many popular television programmes about criminals and the criminal justice system. Civil law is often less dramatic and very much a part of our normal lives, and so it is often overlooked. However, civil law is a vitally important part of our society, even if people are unaware of how it affects them.

A student with the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs, and any law student for that matter, will soon realise how vast a concept civil law really is. Of the seven ‘pillars’ that make up the English legal system, six of these are devoted to civil law and criminal law accounts for only one lonely pillar.

What is civil law?

Civil law dates back to Roman times, and a significant proportion of modern civil law still adheres to the original principles. It regulates a range of matters that affect people’s private relations and includes areas such as contracts, intellectual property, family, and inheritance. Civil law has changed over time to reflect the culture of the particular country that the law is being practiced in, and continues to evolve to reflect changing attitudes and social norms.

What does civil law include?

Some of the areas dealt with in civil law include:

  • Contract law
  • Tort law
  • Property law
  • Conveyancing/land law
  • Wills and probate
  • Succession law
  • Family law


Here is a brief overview of what each of these areas regulate.

Contract law

Contract law covers agreements between two or more parties. Each commits to meet certain obligations, and they become bound to ensure that these obligations are met. A simple example is where someone signs a rental agreement on a property. The owner of the property agrees to allow the renter to use it, while the renter agrees to pay a certain amount to the property owner in return.

Tort law

Tort law deals with personal injury or damage to property. It is split into three sections:

  • Negligence - where someone has failed in their responsibility to protect someone or something. This may be either through their actions or through failing to take action to prevent harm.
  • Intentional tort - where an individual or a company intends to do something that could cause harm to another. It is not the end result of the action that is judged in this case, but the fact that the act itself was deliberately carried out.
  • Strict liability - this applies to cases where harm has occurred, but there is no need to prove either intention or negligence. It requires proof only that harm has resulted, and that the defendant was responsible for that harm occurring. This is often used in the case of defective products, for example.

Property law

Property law covers all types of property, including personal possessions, intellectual property, investments and real estate of all types. There are three sections of property law:

  • Conversion - when someone takes the property of another without permission, and uses it as their own.
  • Trespass to chattels - when someone intentionally and physically stops another from owning and using their personal property.
  • Trespass to land - when someone enters a private property without permission.

Conveyancing/land law

Land law is also related to property and refers to the sale, purchase and transfer of property. It will include, where appropriate, the detail and registration of any loans or other financial interests held on the property by other parties - for example, by mortgage companies.

Wills and probate

Wills are the expression of what someone wishes to happen to their possessions after their death. It will name who they want to administer their requests, and who will benefit from their estate. Probate is the legal process that takes place after someone’s death. The process addresses the value of the assets listed, the right to pass them and the will declared to be the last true testament of the deceased. After this process, the will can be put into force.

Succession law

Succession law covers what happens when a person dies without a will, otherwise known as ‘dying intestate’. In this case, a specific set of rules are applied regarding which relatives inherit and what proportion of the estate is allocated to them. If there is a spouse and/or children, they will be the beneficiaries. If not, the will is distributed through other surviving relatives, in a strict order and using defined percentages. The more distant the relationship, the smaller the proportion the person receives.

Family law

Family law is a particularly wide-ranging area of civil law. It includes marriage, relationship breakdown, child custody and support, separation of assets, adoption, surrogacy, and any other issue relating to family life. In this area of law, there does not need to be someone at fault, as it is about finding a fair solution for all parties involved. This may include consideration of the needs of third parties, such as children or grandparents.

As can be seen here, civil law is a varied and diverse subject, and we have not even covered all of the areas here. This diversity means that many legal professionals choose to specialise in certain areas. While civil law may not seem as exciting as criminal law, it offers the opportunity for a satisfying and rewarding career.