Why some Victims Bring about Civil Suits in Criminal Cases

People mistakenly believe that the criminal law should give victims justice. However, the aim of the Criminal Justice System is to punish criminals, to protect society from unacceptable behaviour, and by doing so, deter those considering like conduct. Sometimes, the criminal law considers particular behaviour so unacceptable that they impose exemplary sentences on defendants. For example, after the 2011 August riots in Britain, the courts sentenced two men to four years imprisonment each, for incitement to riot after they posted messages on social networking sites encouraging others to riot. The courts imposed these sentences in spite of the fact that no one rioted in response to the messages. Crime victims often need to bring civil cases to obtain justice in many circumstances and for many reasons.

A crime victim may wish to bring a civil case for his or her own safety. For example, a criminal court can imprison a person for harassing someone. However, a criminal case takes a long time to come to trial; during the intervening period, the perpetrator is free to harass the victim further. The prudent solicitor advises the victim to bring an immediate civil case for a court injunction preventing the perpetrator from harassing the victim further. Such a court order may ban the perpetrator from the victim’s home area as well as preventing him or her contacting the victim by any means. Another area where this circumstance prevails is in domestic violence cases, where a victim of domestic violence should seek an immediate civil court order restraining the perpetrator’s movements and behaviour.

Crime victims may wish to sue because they have suffered injury, loss or damage resulting from a crime. Criminally damaging another person’s property is a crime in England and Wales. A victim of criminal damage may bring a civil suit against the defendant for the damage he or she did to the property. For example, a train company, which did not inspect and maintain railway tracks according to railway safety legislation, commits a crime, for which the criminal law would impose penalties. However, if the company’s breach of that legislation caused an accident, people injured in the accident could sue in the civil courts in the Tort of negligence.

The criminal law deals with crimes. Those found guilty of a crime may lose their liberty, reputation, and/or profession. Therefore, criminal law requires a very high burden of proof. The prosecution must prove the defendant guilty and the court must find him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or acquit him of the charge. In the United States, in the OJ Simpson case, the victims’ families successfully sued Simpson for wrongful death, after a criminal court acquitted him of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. The USA still has the double jeopardy rule, whereby a defendant cannot face a second criminal trial on the same facts. Also, whereas in a criminal trial the prosecution cannot force the defendant to testify, in a civil trial the plaintiff can force the defendant to testify. The civil trial found on the balance of probabilities that the defendant caused the wrongful deaths.

The criminal justice system exists to punish offenders, protect society against unacceptable behaviour and deter others from such behaviour. It does not give crime victims justice and that is why some crime victims bring about civil suits in criminal cases.

Offline resources: Criminal Law Richard Cross (Butterworths)

                          Criminal Law Catherine Elliott and Frances Quinn (Pearsons)