Civil and criminal law

Scots law is divided up into two main categories called civil law and criminal law. Most housing problems will be dealt with by civil law but this page explains the main differences.

Why does it matter?

If you're involved in the court process, or if you're thinking of taking your case to court, it's important to understand whether civil or criminal law applies because there are different laws and court procedures for each. Lots of people think that you only go to court if you're being charged with a crime but that's not true. You can go to court with a variety of different problems and not all of them are about crime.

Most housing problems will be dealt with by civil law but there might be situations in which criminal law is relevant. For example, if you're being accused of behaving in an antisocial way in your neighbourhood, it could cause problems with your landlord but you might also be charged with breach of the peace or a more serious criminal offence.

Your solicitor will be able to give you more information.

What is civil law?

Civil law is, broadly speaking, about the rights and obligations of individuals and organisations - in other words, the general principles that we adopted from Roman law. This means that it aims to sort out arguments and problems between people, and other organisations, such as companies.

Civil law affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. For example, it can affect our personal relationships within families and as neighbours and members of communities, in our work (whether as employees or running a business), and at home or in our leisure time (as shoppers and consumers).

How does civil law affect me?

Civil law is what you rely on if you sue someone if they haven't honoured an agreement you had (breach of contract) or if you're suing someone for something that's happened to you (for example, if you've been injured at work and your boss didn't take precautions to protect you).

Civil law can also help you if you've got a problem with a public organisation such as your local council or the government. If you want to take action against this kind of organisation, you'd have to use civil law in most cases and you will usually have to raise a special kind of court action called 'judicial review'. However, judicial review cases are not that common and are usually a last resort. You can find out more on our page on judicial review or by getting advice from a solicitor.

Civil law and housing

If you have a housing problem and your case is going to court, it will probably be dealt with by civil law. Civil law in Scotland covers the following housing problems amongst others:

If you are worried about losing your home because you're splitting up with your partner, civil law can help. Family law is part of civil law as well so things like divorce are covered.

What is criminal law?

Criminal law, punishes people for things they've done to others. Serious crimes like murder and rape are dealt with by the criminal law as are some minor crimes like speeding or causing a disturbance in the street (this crime is sometimes called 'breach of the peace').

If you've got a housing problem, you probably won't have to use the criminal law. However, if, for example, you're being threatened or intimidated by your neighbours, or if someone has attacked you and it's affecting your home, you might be able use the criminal law to sort out the problem. You can also read our section on discrimination and harassment for more information.

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Last updated: 9 May 2016

Housing laws differ between Scotland and England.

This content applies to Scotland only.

Get advice if you're in England