Explainer: What is a civil dispute?

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In New South Wales, and in fact in all jurisdictions in Australia, the law can be divided into mainstream jurisdictions; criminal and civil.

The criminal law dictates what happens when a person or people commit criminal offences like assaults, theft and also encompasses traffic law.

Civil law dictates legal interactions between private citizens, including companies.

For example, a contract between two parties, obligations owed by an employer to its employees and people suing each other (including companies) are all examples of civil law.

There are usually two main sides to a civil dispute.

The first is the claimant or plaintiff, being the person or entity who is making the claim.

The second is the respondent or defendant which is the person or entity defending the claim.

For example, if Brian entered into a contract with Jerome to sell Jerome 10 apples for $10 and provided the apples but Jerome did not pay, Brian could sue Jerome for breach of contract to recover the money he is owed. Brian would be the plaintiff and Jerome would be the defendant.

The first step in any civil dispute is usually to seek legal advice and send a letter of demand that outlines your grievance and provides the other party with an opportunity to fulfil the obligations you allege it has not met.

This will often result in the other party getting legal advice of their own and letters between lawyers discussing each respective party’s case.

The law isn’t always black and white so often there will be a dispute between the parties, usually on the advice of their lawyers, about how the law should be applied in a particular case.

There are also often what lawyers refer to as “factual disputes”, in other words the warring parties each have a different version of events about what actually occurred.

For example, Brian might say that he provided Jerome with 10 apples but Jerome didn’t pay him the agreed $10. Jerome might say in reply however that Brian ate seven of the applies himself before Jerome could use them to make a delicious apple pie.

This might lead Jerome to say that he should only have to pay Brian $3, not the $10 that was agreed.

As you can see, each individual case will be unique and will often involve debate about what occurred (the facts) and how the law should be applied to those facts.

If a resolution can’t be reached, the plaintiff or claimant can then commence Court proceedings formalising the dispute.

If the parties have not already tried to mediate or conduct some sort of informal settlement conference, most jurisdictions will require that the parties engage in alternative dispute resolution, i.e., sit around a table and see if they can do a deal.

The reason for this is that litigation is extremely expensive and very stressful. It also takes a long time. There is often a benefit to all parties concerned to strike a compromise.

The other good thing about agreeing to a resolution is that you are in control of the outcome.

If you take a civil dispute to a hearing, each party essentially puts their case to a Judge who will then decide who wins or loses.

Without getting too complicated, quite often the outcome of a case can be that both parties lose to some degree.

Most of the time, the losing party has to pay some or all of the winning party’s legal costs on top of their own.

Contact us for an obligation-free chat about what courses of action you might have available to you if you have a civil dispute.

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