Substantive vs. Procedural Laws

One way to differentiate between different types of laws is to look at the content of the laws themselves.

Substantive Laws

Laws whose content, or substance, defines what we can or cannot do are called substantive laws.  Substantive laws fall into two categories: criminal laws and civil laws.

Criminal laws prohibit behavior that the government has determined to be harmful to society.  Violation of a criminal law is called a crime.  Criminal law proceedings involve two parties: the government (prosecution) and the person(s) accused of committing a crime (defendant(s)).  In criminal law cases, the burden of proof lies with the government, which is charged with proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and defendants in both federal and state criminal trials are afforded numerous civil liberties, or protections, such as the right to counsel.  Defendants who are found guilty in criminal cases may be subject to fines, community service, probation, or imprisonment.

Civil laws regulate interactions between individuals.  Violation of a civil law is called a tort.  Civil law proceedings involve two parties: the plaintiff, or person who brings the case in a court of law, and the defendant, against whom the case is brought.  In civil law cases, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff, who must demonstrate a preponderance of evidence.  Defendants who are found at fault in civil cases may be subject to punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant for the action, or compensatory damages, which are intended to compensate the plaintiff for damages, injury, or another incurred loss.

Some actions may violate both criminal and civil law – and may result in both a criminal case and a civil case.

Procedural laws

Procedural laws establish how laws are applied and enforced – in other words, how legal proceedings should take place.  Procedural laws include rules about jurisdiction, plea bargaining, evidence, appeals, legal representation/counsel, due process, etc.  Our federal and state constitution contain many provisions guaranteeing procedural due process to protect the rights of individuals who must deal with the legal system.

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