What Is a Civil Dispute?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2014
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A civil dispute is a legal disagreement between two or more principle individuals or organizations. It is distinguished from a criminal dispute in that it does not involve statutory laws and does not require the involvement of the state as a principle party. A civil dispute usually involves tort, contract, or probate laws and is resolved by the court through the awarding of compensation, usually in the form of financial damages.

There are many different kinds of civil disputes. When a person violates a civil duty to another, such as a doctor guilty of negligence toward a patient, the civil dispute is usually called a tort. Torts include issues such as malpractice, negligence, personal injury, defamation, or workplace safety. This large branch of civil law is an extremely common source of legal disputes. Tort disputes may involve two individuals, an individual and an organization, or two organizations. In managing tort disputes, a judge must determine if the defendant had a civil duty to the plaintiff, if the duty was breached, and if the damage done to the plaintiff that resulted directly from the breach of duty can be measured in terms of compensation.


Another common type of civil dispute is over the terms and conditions of contracts. In most regions, a contract constitutes a legally enforceable agreement; if one side can't or won't meet the terms he or she agreed to, it is up to the court to handle the enforcement. In a civil dispute over contracts, the issues before the court may include whether the contract was valid to begin with, if a violation has indeed occurred, and whether the violation merits compensation. Landlord/tenant disputes, business agreements, and employer/employee issues are common types of civil contract lawsuits.

Legal documents of all kinds are often the source of civil disputes. The management and distribution process of an estate following the owner's death can be a breeding ground for lawsuits and counter-suits among grieving and squabbling relatives. The surest way to guard against civil disputes over legal documents is to read all documentation carefully and involve attorneys in every step of a documentation process. Even then, guarantees against civil lawsuits are not always possible.

In criminal law, the state charges a person with violating statutes that harm the public; in civil disputes, however, government offices can still be involved. Many regions give citizens the right to sue the government for violating their own laws, such as over issues of constitutionality. When a case has a name such as Joe Schmoe v. State of Delaware it indicates that the civil dispute involves an individual against the state. The right to bring a civil dispute against the government is considered an inalienable right in some regions, while in others it is not permitted.


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