In the broadest sense of the term, the criminal law refers to criminal procedure and evidence as well as substantive crimes. However, for the purposes of this section, we will be looking at criminal law in the latter, narrower sense of substantive criminal offences.
The domain of the criminal law is in punishing those in our society who have committed crimes. The criminal law lays down the definitions of criminal offences and the standard of proof and procedures required to prove that these offences have been committed. These criminal offences are actions which are deemed inappropriate or harmful for society by our law-makers and are therefore declared to be illegal.
Where individuals do not adhere to our criminal laws and commit acts which break them, they are punished by the criminal law for these actions. The criminal law is therefore unique from the civil law in that it can potentially involve imprisonment and the deprivation of the offender’s freedom. A criminal sentence can also include other punishments such as fines, community service or suspended sentences.
There are many ideas put forward as to why our system of criminal law and punishment exists including:
- Punishment of the offender for their actions
- Rehabilitation and education of the offender so that they do not break society’s rules in the future.
- Using the offender as an example to deter the future commission of crimes.
- Exacting retribution on behalf of law-abiding society for the criminal actions of the offender.
Some view the purpose of the criminal law as a mixture of all of these ideas. You can decide for yourself what you think the main purpose of the criminal law is and should be as you read through the criminal law case summaries and case notes.