UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CRIMES AND CIVIL WRONGS
It is common in the Nigerian society to find citizens take all kinds of complaints and matters to law enforcement agencies particularly the police. Moreover the police do not educate the citizens on the difference between criminal cases and civil cases. It is also common experience in Nigeria to find law enforcement agencies particularly the Police exploit and extort citizens with threats of pressing criminal charges against them for complaints that are not crimes.
It is important that we understand the difference between criminal cases and civil cases and how to go about them and handle them.
WHAT IS A CRIMINAL CASE/CRIME?
A crime or criminal case is an act or conduct that is primarily against the State (the people) and it is the State that takes responsibility to bring the perpetrator/suspect/criminal to justice. Criminal cases are cases between a citizen(s) and the State (government). The State (government) is usually the complainant and the victim of crime is the nominal complainant in criminal cases.
A crime is an ACTION (what you do) or OMISSION (something you are to do but fail to do it) which is against the law and is punishable by the law. Crime is a behavior which the law forbids and punishes. A crime is doing things the law says we should not do and when we do them we will be punished by the law.
WHAT IS A CIVIL CASE/CIVIL DISPUTE?
A civil case arises from disputes and disagreements between people, companies or businesses. Civil case most often involves breach of contract, Landlord tenant matters, torts, equitable claims, divorce matters, wills and estate matters, debt recovery matters etc. Civil cases are cases between citizens or between a citizen and the government, or between companies, institutions and organizations. It could also be between a company and a citizen. In civil cases it is the people or a person that goes to court against another. Civil cases do not involve the police or law enforcement agents. In civil cases the demand or request is usually for monetary compensation damages, costs, performance of a duty, restrictions from doing something harmful to the other person, payment of debt, respect for rights, declaration of positions of the parties, restoration of property or rights etc.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CIVIL CASES AND CRIMINAL CASES
|S/N||CRIMINAL CASES||CIVIL CASES|
|1||Criminal cases are initiated by the State (government) through the office of the Attorney General or his representatives like the police and other law enforcement agencies.||Civil cases are initiated by the individual or business who feels or claims that he has been wronged.|
|2||Crimes are not just against the victim but against the public. It is not personal to the victim but for public interest.||Civil wrongs are against a person or business. It is personal and private.|
|3||Crimes are punished.||Civil wrongs are remedied|
|4.||Imprisonment is the major punishment for crimes.||Payment of damages and injunctions are the major remedies for civil wrongs.|
|5.||Criminal cases are initiated in court through charges||Civil cases are initiated in Court through claims.|
|6.||In Nigeria most criminal cases pass through and emanate from the Police and other law enforcement agencies.||Civil case emanate directly from the individual. The Police and other law enforcement agencies are not involved in civil cases.|
|7||In criminal cases the suspect or defendant is often arrested and requires bail to regain his/her freedom.||In civil cases the defendant is not arrested and do not need bail.|
|8.||In criminal cases the defendant pleads “guilty” or “not guilty”||In civil cases the defendant pleads “liable” or “not liable”|
|9.||In criminal cases defendants who are not granted bail or who were granted bail but fail to meet the bail conditions are kept in prison custody from where they attend court.||In civil cases arrest, bail, prison, police are not involved.|
|10.||Criminal cases are quarrels between the government and the suspect/defendant||Civil cases are quarrels between individuals or businesses.|
|11.||In criminal cases defendants are required to stand in the dock.||In civil cases defendants do not stand in the dock.|
|12||In criminal cases defendants are required to always be in court otherwise the case will not go on.||In civil cases defendants are not required to always attend court. Civil cases can go on in the absence of the defendant.|
|13.||Most criminal cases cannot be resolved through mediation and arbitration.||All civil cases except divorce cases can be resolved through mediation and arbitration.|
|14||The laws governing crimes and civil disputes are differnt|
CRIMINALISING CIVIL CASES
Abuse of power by law enforcement agents particularly the police is widespread in Nigeria. Incidences of criminalizing civil wrongs are common place in Nigeria. There are several reports and incidences where landlord/tenant matters were reported to the police an the police went on to arrest, detain and extort money from individuals for bail. The Nigerian Police have also been involved in debt collection; and intervened in cases of breach of contract and other civil matters. Most often the police hide under the guise of suspicion of crime to sit over civil matters contrary to the provisions of the Constitution and the Police Act. The police ought not to handle civil cases and they should be stopped from dabbling into and handling civil cases.
In the case of KURE v. C.O.P (2020)9 NWL (Pt. 1729, PAGE 296, the Supreme Court of Nigeria held as follows: “The primary duty of the police by section 4 of the Police Act is the prevention of crime, investigation and detection of crime and the prosecution of offenders…. The police is not a debt recovery agency and has no business to dabble into contractual disputes between parties arising from purely civil transactions…. When, as in the circumstances of this action, a purely civil matter is reported to the police, such a person cannot go scot-free as the report ought not to have been made at all since it is not within the purview of police duties”.
In this case the Supreme Court not only condemned the police for handling civil matters but also stated that the person who reports a civil dispute to the police whereupon another person is arrested and detained will also be held responsible in law.
Again, section 8 sub-section 2 of the Administration of Justice Act provides that “a suspect shall not be arrested merely on a civil wrong or breach of contract” This further shows that crimes are different from civil wrongs and disputes and it is not acceptable for the police or any party to turn civil disputes into criminal matters.
Lawyers also have a duty not to write frivolous petitions alleging crimes where none has been committed. It is important to note that where civil disputes are turned to crimes the complainant may not get much compared to what he/she may likely get in a civil action. Worthy of not also is that civil disputes can be handled through various means like mediation, arbitration, negotiation and other dispute resolution mechanisms apart from going to court.
Let us all play our roles to keep crimes as crimes and civil disputes as civil disputes.
WILSON NNEJI, LLB, LLM, ACArb, ChMC.
Legal Officer CAPIO.