Civil law is the law that deals with interactions between people, between a person and a company or between two companies. It is NOT enforced by the police, but directly by individuals.
That means you can use civil laws to protect yourself when someone has done something wrong to you. It also means that if you do something wrong to another person, they might be able to take you to court.
You can break both the criminal and the civil law at the same time but you can ONLY be sued if you have broken a civil law.
There are lots of different types of civil laws but generally they all deal with what happens when some sort of “wrong” has been done between two parties. Since a “wrong” has been done, civil law is all about making things right again. Someone who has broken a civil law will normally have to pay the other person money to make up for what they did wrong.
Breach of contract and negligence are common examples of how someone might break civil laws. We explain these and some others in more detail below.
If you sue a person, this means that you are taking them to court because you believe they have committed a wrong against you and therefore they have broken a civil law. However, suing someone can be a stressful, complicated, time-consuming and expensive process so it is really important that you seek legal advice first.
When you sue a person or you are sued, you are saying that because they have broken this law they need to repair it in some way.
|If someone damages your property, you could sue them to pay the cost of repairs.|
|If someone doesn’t complete all the tasks they agreed to under a contract, you could sue them to compensate you for all the time or money you lost by them failing to complete the tasks.|
|When someone injures you in some way and it affects your life significantly, you could sue them for the effect it has had on your life.|
Normally it is not worth suing someone over very small things because going to court is very expensive and can take a long time and if the issue isn’t that big then you might waste more time and money going to court than it’s worth.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that if you are not able to prove why the other person should be paying you money for your injuries, then you might have to pay for their court costs because you wasted the court’s time.
Real life example:
|Charlie, who is 12, contacted Youth Law Australia because students in his school were spreading rumours that he was violent and had been kicked out of his last school. Youth Law Australia explained that the rumours about him might have been defamation but a court case wasn’t the best way to deal with the rumours because it was unlikely that the court would find the student guilty of defamation. Youth Law Australia suggested that Charlie talk to the school or his parents about trying to stop the rumours.|
If you think someone has harmed you and you might be able to sue them, you can’t just sue them whenever you want. Sometimes you must sue within a specific time limit set by the law. The time limits will depend on what you are suing for and how old you were when you were harmed.
If you are under 18 and wish to sue someone, you will need a “litigation guardian” unless the court considers otherwise, and your litigation guardian will require a lawyer. A “litigation guardian” is an adult who will help you conduct the case and will usually be either your parents or legal guardian.
When a person wants to enforce their legal rights against you, they may start a court case. If you have injured them, broken a contract with them, broken or damaged their property, or said something defamatory about them, they may want to sue you for money or to make you do something.
Being involved in a court case can be time consuming, expensive and confusing. If you have done what they say you have done, you should talk to your parents or a lawyer about your options and consider ways of dealing with the issue out of court (if possible).
Good to know:
|Do not ignore documents sent to you from the court. You may be penalised if you do that and might even lose the case by default!|
If you are sued, the court may appoint you a “litigation guardian” who will run the case on your behalf.
Basic court process when being sued:
a) Property damage and injury
If a person has been injured or their property has been damaged by someone else, they may sue for negligence.
To be able to sue someone for negligence you have to prove a number of things, including:
A ‘duty of care’ is a legal obligation for someone to take reasonable steps to protect you from harm. This does not mean they must protect you from all harm or danger, they only need to do everything that is reasonable in the circumstances.
A person or organisation will breach their duty of care if they don’t take reasonable steps to make sure that you are safe from harm. What they are required to do will depend on the circumstances of the case. In particular, it depends on what the risk of harm is, and what steps they could have taken to prevent injury.
|If you’re hosting a party, you need to take reasonable care and provide a safe environment for your guests. If you allow too many people into the party and someone is trampled, the injured person could sue you and you might have to pay for their medical expenses.|
|If you trip over a puddle of water in your local grocery store and there were no signs to warn you that it was slippery, you might be able to sue the store for any medical costs to treat your injuries. You might also be able to claim lost wages if your injuries prevented you from working.|
Sometimes it’s hard to say that one person is entirely responsible for the injury or damage caused. Contributory negligence is where the person who suffered an injury or damage was also negligent in some way. The law takes this into account by reducing the amount of money the person being sued has to pay.
|If you cross a road and you’re hit by a driver who is driving too fast, the driver may be negligent. But if you cross the road without looking (for example because you were texting on your phone), the driver may still be negligent but you may also be contributorily negligent. The result is that you may receive less compensation than if you looked before crossing the road.|
The laws about how to work out if you have been negligent are very complicated. If you suspect that you or someone you know has done something that has caused injury to another person, you need to seek immediate legal advice.
b) Breach of contract
Breach of contract is when you sign or agree to a contract but then you don’t do what you promised to do in the contract. You can be sued for breach of contract.
A contract is an agreement between two people who promise to do certain things and that the law says you can enforce. We make contracts every day, sometimes without even knowing we’ve entered into one. Contracts can be written, like when you’re buying a mobile phone or getting a credit card, or they can be made orally.
In general, you should not sign any document unless you have read it, understood it, agree with it and want to be legally bound by it. If you are not sure, ensure that you get legal advice before you sign a document that may have legal consequences.
Defamation occurs where someone hurts the reputation of another by publishing false information about them.
Check out our Defamation page for more information.
If you don’t want to sue someone, there are alternative ways to seek compensation.
If you need specific advice, you can send us your enquiry here.
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