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Being Sued


What is the difference between criminal law and civil law?


Criminal law

Criminal law is used to keep society peaceful and safe. It is the law enforced by the police. Crimes can include minor things like having a fake ID all the way to serious crimes like murder, sexual assault and theft.

You can’t sue or be sued under criminal law. Instead, if you commit a crime you may be charged by the police and be punished by receiving a fine, community service order or sent to jail.
For more information on criminal law, see:

When can I be interviewed by the police?
When can I be convicted of a criminal offence?

Civil law

Civil law deals with the rights and responsibilities that people have towards each other. It is not enforced by the police but directly by individual people.

You can sue and be sued under civil law.

That means you can use civil laws to protect yourself and try to get money (called “damages”) when someone has done something wrong to you. On the flip side, if you do something wrong to another person, they might be able to take you to court.

Some examples on how you can use civil law are:
•    If someone ruins your property, you may sue them for the money needed to fix it.
•    If someone injures you, you may sue them for your medical costs.

Sometimes, you can break both the criminal and the civil law at the same time. For example, if you hit someone with your car, you may have committed a crime. You could also be sued and have to pay the other person’s medical costs to treat the injuries you caused.

Breach of contract and negligence are common examples of how someone might break civil laws.

What is 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 if you breach a contract.

A contract is an agreement between two people who promise to do certain things. We make contracts every day, sometimes without even knowing we’ve entered into one. Sometimes contracts must be written like when you’re buying a mobile phone or getting a credit card. However, most contracts are made without writing, like buying a burger at the food court or buying clothes.

Check out the Contracts Lawstuff page for more information.

What is negligence?

Generally speaking, negligence is when someone acts in a careless way and as a result causes harm to another person. If you have been negligent and someone is injured physically or psychologically, had their property damaged or suffered financial loss, they may be able sue you for money to compensate them for their injury or loss.

For example, 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 be liable for paying their medical expenses.  

At the same time, you may sue a person or a company if their lack of reasonable care caused an injury or loss. For example, 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.

How do I know if I’ve been negligent?

We are all expected to act with "reasonable care" but the standard may be different depending on how old you are, your relationship with the injured person and how capable you are of understanding the consequences of your actions.

Also note that you can be sued for injuring someone or damaging their property at any age, as long as you understand the seriousness of, and the consequences of, your actions. 

What is contributory negligence?

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. 

For example, 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.

In court, it’s up to the person being sued to prove that the person suing them was also negligent and so contributed to the injuries they suffered.

What is defamation?

The law says that you can't say untrue, false or malicious comments about someone. This is called defamation. If you say these things about another person (whether you’re out in public or online), you could be sued for compensation. The main purpose of a defamation action is to compensate a person for harm to his or her reputation.
Something is defamatory if it would lower the way other people in the community think about that person’s reputation. 
Check out our Defamation Lawstuff page for more information.  If someone has posted something mean about you online, check out our cyberbullying page, which has tips on how to get stuff removed.

When can I sue someone?

You may be able to sue someone if they cause loss or injury to you, like negligence or breach of contract.

Sometimes you must sue someone within a time period set by the law. This is known as the “limitation period”. The time limit depends on what you are suing for. For example, if you want to sue someone for breach of contract, you must do so within 6 years from the day the contract was breached.  If you want to sue someone for causing injury to you, then you only have 3 years from the day you were injured.  However, in most cases the limitation period for any legal action does not start until you turn 18. 

If you are under 18 and want to sue someone, you will need a “case guardian” or “litigation guardian” depending on the court. A “case guardian” is an adult who will help you conduct the case and is usually your parents or legal guardian. Sometimes the court can also appoint one for you.

You will not need a case guardian if you are under 18 and the court believes you understand the case and its consequences, and are capable of handling the case yourself.

Suing can be very expensive and complicated, so it’s a good idea to get legal advice.

When can I be sued?

If you’ve caused a loss or injury through for example negligence or breach of contract then you may be sued.

For negligence cases, the person suing you must prove that you were negligent. That means they must prove that what you did is not what a reasonable person would have done. They must also prove that you didn’t act with “reasonable care”.

Keep in mind that a person usually won’t sue you unless they think you have enough money or property to pay compensation.

If you are under 18 and are being sued, you may need an adult to be a “case guardian”. A “case guardian” is an adult who will assist you in the case and organising your defence. They will usually be either your parents or legal guardian. Sometimes the court can also appoint one for you.


Will my parents have to pay money for something that is my fault? 

Your parents are not usually responsible for paying money if you have injured someone or damaged their property.

However, your parents may be responsible if you acted on their behalf, with their consent or your parents did not properly supervise you which led you to cause an injury or loss.

Page last updated 25 June 2015