Resolving disputes: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

January 2022

Marina Matyukhina explains the differences between criminal and civil law, and how this can help you in your studies.

Doing the right thing is in an accountants’ DNA. Another profession probably equally obsessed with distinguishing right from wrong is the law. While the accountants often turn to help of the legal professionals, and vice versa, it is useful for both to know the nitty-gritty of each others’ area.

For example, as accountants we may start with learning the differences between criminal and civil law.

Law is as old as civilization. Since ancient times, societies aimed to create rules for resolving disputes between members. The earliest legal codes – Sumerian, Babylonian, later Greek and Roman – didn’t distinguish clearly between civil and criminal law. Yet the modern English legal system is the opposite. It consists of two independent systems operating side by side: criminal and civil law. Each is represented by different courts, terminology, and procedures.

How has this split emerged and what are the key distinctions today? Let’s resolve an imaginary dispute with a neighbour to answer the second part of this question and have a quick glance into the first one.

Suppose that your dog has accidentally broken into your neighbour’s garden and destroyed their favourite bed of daisies. What are you going to do?

The good

In a good situation, there is no dispute. Or it is easily settled without any legal system. You apologise to your neighbour and offer them some kind of compensation – buying them a gift, helping plant new daisies, or paying an equivalent. If the neighbour agrees, an out-ofcourt settlement is achieved.

The bad

Now suppose that your neighbour is not a very agreeable person. He starts arguing that those were extremely rare daisies planted in the memory of his dearest grandmother and only compensation of no less than £1,000,000 may relieve his pain of the unbearable loss. When you tell him you don’t think it would be fair, the neighbour goes to court.
The dispute is between two individuals.
So this is a civil law case to be heard in a civil court, most likely a county court. The neighbour acts as a claimant as he initiates the case. You will act as a defendant. The case will be named with the parties names starting with the claimant, for example Neighbour v DogOwner.
The claimant will have to collect and present the evidence of the wrongdoing (e.g. CCTV footage). It must be sufficient to convince the court that it is more likely than not that the wrongdoing took place. If the judges find so, you will be held liable. Yet it is unlikely that the claim of £1,000,000 will be satisfied as the remedies (damages in this case) are awarded to compensate the loss of the injured party. Proving that a flower bed was worth £1,000,000 can be a very amusing yet futile exercise.

The ugly

Suppose that the neighbour is not only disagreeable but also a quick-tempered person.
Cursing wildly, he grabs a shovel, chases your dog, crashes your fence, and threatens to kill the dog and you. Luckily, everyone is safe, but now you have all the reasons to call the police. The wrongdoings are severe enough to be not only the matter between you and the neighbour but between the state and the neighbour.

This has not always been so. In ancient times ‘eye for an eye’ justice was commonplace.
Sometimes these personal vendettas could cause far greater havoc than the initial offence.
European countries began to recognise the most severe acts (e.g. murder, theft, assault, etc.) as public wrongs. Then restoring justice ceased to be the matter of the injured person or their family and became the matter of state. In England, the process began in 1066 after the Norman conquest. It took several centuries for a separate body of criminal law to be formed, along with the evolution of the law enforcement system.

Getting back to the neighbour, the police representing the state will initiate a criminal law case. In the court, the claim will be brought up by the prosecutor, a representative of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The neighbour now will be acting as a defendant (the only word similar in civil and criminal law languages!). The case will be heard in a criminal court, most likely a Magistrates’ Court. The case name will start with R representing the Crown (literally Rex or Regina, meaning King or Queen), e.g. R v Neighbour.

The prosecution is responsible for gathering and presenting evidence, which must be beyond reasonable doubt. A tougher standard of proof is applied in criminal law as the defendant’s freedom may be at stake. If the judges find that the wrongdoing took place, the defendant will be pleaded guilty and sentenced to punishment, a fine or imprisonment.

Distinguishing between criminal and civil law is important for ACCA LW. The two systems use different language; knowing the terminology helps spot what legal system an exam question is about.

• Marina Matyukhina is an independent financial consultant and lecturer currently offering an FR course on Udemy (see