Public Law 

Section 2

Lesson 2: Criminal Law 

People often use words and phrases like crime, criminal, and criminal act in conversation, and we all think we know what they mean; but do you know precisely what makes an act a crime? 

Test Yourself:

  1. Take the Crime-Awareness Test that follows and see how well you do. The questions are about Dave and Orasia, a couple who were recently engaged to be married but whose relationship has become rather rocky. Simply identify which of the actions described in the test would be considered a crime.
    1. Dave slapped Orasia across the face in a restaurant.
    2. Orasia sent a letter to Dave's employer untruthfully saying that Dave has a drug problem.
    3. Orasia cut up Dave's jacket, which he had left in her apartment.
    4. In retaliation, Dave took Orasia's car and drove it into a city bus shelter.
    5. Dave asked Orasia to return her engagement ring, but she refused.
    6. Suspecting that Dave had another girlfriend, Orasia read his e-mail one day while alone in his office.
    7. Dave began hanging around Orasia's apartment at night, waiting in his car and watching.

Turn to the Suggested Answers at the end of this lesson and compare your answers with the ones given there.

Crime : an act forbidden by law and for which the government has the power to punish.

Criminal law is usually distinguished from civil law , and it's important that you understand the difference before going on.

Criminal Law is a type of public law. That means it concerns the relationship between people and their government. Some acts that people perform are judged by the government to be so harmful to society as a whole that they are called crimes. If people are known to have committed crimes, the authorities will apprehend them and punish them.

Criminal law : the branch of law that sets out certain acts as crimes and punishes those acts.

Actus Reus: latin term meaning "guilty act". This is the actual, conscious, physical act of committing a crime.

Mens Rea: latin term meaning "guilty mind". This is the intent to commit a crime.

Both Actus Reus and Mens Rea MUST be proven to be present, in order to convict someone of a crime in a court of law.

Test Yourself - Can you now tell the difference between Civil (Private) Law and Criminal (Public Law)?

  1. Classify each of the following situations as an issue involving either criminal or civil law.
    1. A fired employee brings a legal action against her employer for wrongful dismissal.
    2. A 14-year-old girl is charged with an offense under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
    3. A rock singer, who had contracted to put on a concert, fails to show up for the performance.
    4. A driver finds himself in court after failing to pass a sobriety test.
    5. A customer is accidentally poisoned in a restaurant after a cook negligently mixed up the ingredients in the food the customer ate.
    6. The owner of a convenience store is prosecuted for selling cigarettes to a minor.
    7. A landlord wants financial compensation from a tenant who has damaged the apartment he's renting.
    8. In order to make a good story, a writer of magazine articles makes up some highly uncomplimentary "facts" about a show-business celebrity.

Turn to the Suggested Answers at the end of this lesson and compare your answers with the ones given there.

Things become a bit more complex, however, because some wrongs can end up in both criminal and civil courts. Here is an example:

Frances is driving home from the bar where she has been drinking heavily all evening. In her intoxicated state, Frances hits a pedestrian at a crosswalk, killing him. The man, Mr. Ling, was married and had two children.

Criminal: Frances will likely go to trial and, if found guilty, will go to jail, for Impaired Driving Causing Death. She will also likely lose her driving privileges and will probably have to attend counseling sessions to deal with alcohol abuse. These are steps that are taken to protect society against individuals like Frances.

Civil: But what about Mr. Ling's family? They have suffered a great loss. The fact that Frances has been imprisoned and lost her driving privileges may be some satisfaction to them, but it does nothing to replace the love and companionship of a family member-not to mention the financial support. If they wish to, Mr. Ling's family could take Frances to court in a civil action in hopes of receiving financial compensation for their losses.

So Frances could easily end up with two court cases on her hands-a criminal trial and a civil suit.

Criminal Law at Work

Image Source: GettyImages
You are probably a good deal more familiar with the idea of criminal law than with the idea of civil law. After all, almost all those dramatic courtroom scenes on TV and in the movies involve criminal cases, and it is the sensational trials of murderers and other serious criminals that are covered in the news. But do you know precisely why some actions are considered serious enough by society to be designated crimes while others are not?
The federal government has jurisdiction over criminal law in Canada . That means that statutes passed by Parliament determine what acts are criminal acts. The principal statute that does this is the Criminal Code of Canada. This very lengthy statute-currently running about 1500 pages in length-identifies most of the acts considered crimes in Canada. 

There are other federal statutes, though, that create criminal offenses; among them are the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Quasi-criminal laws: provincial statutes and municipal bylaws that if you break them, you will be prosecuted by the authorities, but you will not be considered a 'criminal. For example, speeding, parking laws, building regulations, dog-control laws, household-garbage quotas, rules about noise pollution, and so on.

Bylaws: written laws passed by municipal governments

Test Yourself:

5. Now that you understand the distinction between civil and criminal law, decide whether the following acts fall into the areas of criminal law, civil law, or both. Put the appropriate words into the column on the right.

Action Criminal/Civil/Both
Breach of contract
Impaired driving
Break and enter
Non-payment of bills
Dangerous driving

Turn to the Suggested Answers at the end of this lesson and compare your chart with the ones given there.

Suggested Answers

    1. crime (assault)
    2. no crime
    3. no crime
    4. crime (dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and theft)
    5. no crime
    6. no crime
    7. crime (intimidation)

    1. civil law
    2. criminal law
    3. civil law
    4. criminal law
    5. civil law
    6. criminal law
    7. civil law
    8. civil law

  1. Answers will vary. Here are some of the factors you should have considered.
    • medical costs the plaintiff has incurred and will continue to incur for the rest of his life
    • loss of earning power throughout what probably would have been the plaintiff's working life-until the age of 65
    • compensation for the plaintiff for the physical pain and mental anguish he's gone through and will likely continue to go through
    • punishment for the defendant because of his attitude and behaviour
    • deterrence for other people

  2. Your chart should look like this one:
Action Criminal/Civil/Both
Theft criminal
Breach of contract civil
Impaired driving criminal
Break and enter criminal
Assault both
Slander civil
Non-payment of bills civil
Dangerous driving criminal