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The term ‘Civil Law’ can have two meanings. Firstly, it may refer to a system of law which is also known as the Continental Law System and is opposed to the Common Law System. This system of law is particularly prevalent in Continental European nations. It owes its origins to the Roman law which was codified in Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and its subsequent developments.
The essential characteristic which distinguishes civil law systems from the common law systems is the codification and the highly systemized and structured nature of the laws as also its emphasis on general principles of law without necessarily laying down the details.
Secondly, Civil Law may also denote a branch of law within a country which deals with the private rights and remedies of individuals who are subject to it, as distinguished from criminal, political or other rights. It includes within its ambit a wide variety of laws such as contract law, family law, property law, etc. As opposed to the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard of proof required in criminal law, civil law requires only a ‘balance of probabilities’. The object of the civil law is to redress the wrong done by restitution or compensation and to sustain the rights of individuals. There is no punishment and the wrongdoer is only made to make good the wrong he has done. While in criminal cases the suit is initiated by the State itself, as crimes are considered as offences against the whole society and the State as the protector of society, it is a private party which does so in civil cases because civil wrongs affect private rights of individuals.
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