Criminal law is perhaps one of the most exciting fields of law, alongside civil litigation, since it deals with people and presents an excellent opportunity to study the psychology of criminals up close.

The task of criminal law is to set out everything that can be defined as a criminal act, whether that be harm to person or property, theft, or even putting one’s own life in danger.

Criminal law also determines what punishment is appropriate for various crimes as well as what rehabilitation initiatives could be most likely to make a difference in changing an individual’s behavior.

It’s hard to make too many universal statements about the specifics of criminal law, given that it varies wildly according to jurisdiction at the local and national levels.

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What is criminal law all about?

courthouse
Most of the work of criminal lawyers takes place in a court. https://unsplash.com/photos/bAQH53VquTc

Originally, there was no distinction between criminal law and civil law.

They were considered to be one and the same.

Yes, as crazy as that may sound, it was once the case many years ago that to commit an act of robbery would be seen as the same in the eyes of the law as trespassing someone else’s property. Oftentimes these cases would be resolved in the same way many civil lawsuits are: with the handing over of money to compensate the harmed party.

It wasn’t until the Romans came along and provided a clear distinction between civil and criminal law back in the 12th century that the field of criminal law came about.

Though, as you can imagine, back then criminal law was relatively barbaric with all manners of unspeakable punishments in store for those deemed to be criminals. These days criminal law is a lot more civil - which is ironic given that they were once both the same - but there are still parts of the world where criminals are dealt with in violent ways such as forms of capital punishment.

When states first began to administer justice through courts in the 18th century, and police forces became more widely used, there was a much more solid system in place for creating and enforcing criminal law.

This is one of the key facets of criminal law, that it has to be created but also enforced and sometimes this can cause further issues pertaining to human rights and more.

One of the most common punishments in the modern world for crimes committed is incarceration, whether temporarily in jail or for a longer period of time in prison. When a criminal has been submitted to a prison or jail, they are then subjected to rules of living according to parole and probation programs.

What are some examples of criminal laws?

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Criminal laws are what determine whether or not someone has to face a judge in court. https://unsplash.com/photos/veNb0DDegzE

Now that you’ve got an initial idea of what exactly criminal law is concerned with, let’s take a look at a small selection of examples of criminal law.

Actus Reus

You’ll find that if you study criminal law, or any field for that matter, you’ll probably come across your fair share of Latin language along the way.

Actus Reus is the Latin phrase meaning ‘guilty act’, and it refers to the physical aspect of committing a crime.

This law encompasses everything from the threat of action to the omission to act. If you’re wondering how an omission to act constitutes a crime in the eyes of the law, it’s because for some there is a legal duty to act and if they fail to carry out this duty then that is seen as negligence and punishable as a crime.

An example of this negligence is when a parent fails to adequately take care of a child by not giving them enough water. Of course, the omission to act part of the law implies that there is a duty of care involved, since otherwise you can’t be persecuted for failing to act on someone else’s behalf.

Elements

Elements refers to any act that falls under the umbrella of crime.

This means it isn’t necessarily something most people would take to be an obvious example of a crime like burglary.

A good example would be a traffic offence, such as driving under the influence of alcohol.

Mens rea

If you studied Latin at school, you’ll know that ‘mens’ means ‘mind’ but ‘rea’? The Latin word ‘rea’ like the earlier word we came across ‘reus’ means ‘guilty’.

If you have a guilty mind, it means that you have deliberate intentions to commit a crime.

For example, if someone is facing trial and court and admits that the act they committed was dangerous then they are confessing that they had performed an act they knew to be dangerous, which is reckless.

This can be a tricky law to defend or pursue since it refers to the mental state of the person the moment the act was committed, which due to memory distortion and other factors like witnesses can be incredibly difficult to determine accurately.

Is Criminal law a sought-after field?

Unfortunately, crime is an inevitability in this world, so criminal law will always be an in-demand field to some degree.

Whether wrongfully accused of a crime or otherwise, there are many people out there that need the help of a criminal defense lawyer to come to their aid and ensure the most just outcome possible.

It’s also true that criminal law is a very popular field for law graduates, in part perhaps due to the huge popularity of crime TV shows such as ‘CSI’, ‘Dexter’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and all the real-life crime shows that people can’t seem to get enough of.

Human psychology can be an endlessly fascinating topic to explore, and criminal lawyers get to see first-hand everything to do with crimes and will even have the opportunity to investigate the scene of the crime and interview witnesses like a detective.

If you have a remote interest in crime, criminals, or the justice system and how it is upheld, then it’s well worth considering a career in criminal law.

Just like property law, criminal law will always be an essential part of society due to human nature and the way we live on this planet.

It’s also true that the degree to which criminal law is an in-demand field of law will depend on other factors such as the crime statistics where you are, and how many criminal lawyers are already working there.

Here are a few of the other most popular fields of law:

What does a criminal lawyer do?

investigation text
Instead of just reading about great detectives like Sherlock Holmes, as a criminal lawyer you can do some detective work yourself. https://unsplash.com/photos/cS2eQHB7wE4

So what is it exactly that a criminal lawyer does on a daily basis you may be asking yourself?

Well, criminal lawyers are those whose job it is to protect and defend those individuals and organisations or entities that have been charged with a crime.

Otherwise known as criminal defense lawyers as well as public defenders, this type of lawyer will typically work on a wide range of cases spanning everything from burglary to narcotic-related crimes.

The main duties that a criminal lawyer has to carry out include representing defendants in courts, be it at a federal or state level. Specifically, you would have to attend bail bond hearings, fight for parole or probation, make appeals, and in some cases interview witnesses and investigate the crime.

Life as a criminal lawyer is far from easy, and sometimes you will have to defend morally questionable individuals or organisations, but you are doing so to uphold the law which is a noble cause.

It’s also a fascinating job to be in, since you will be able to get in on criminal cases and take on the role of a real-life detective interviewing witnesses and piecing together what exactly happened as if you were Sherlock Holmes.

After brushing up on the case details, it’s your job to create a water-tight defense to use in court to protect your client. You may also have to negotiate on the courtroom floor with the prosecution, in order to get more favorable terms for the defendant.

You will be the defendant’s advocate, which means the responsibility falls largely on your shoulders, and you will need to fight in their corner to the best of your ability. The motivation to do well in this job is strong, as you will want to prevent your clients from facing the full force of the law especially if they had little to no involvement in the crime they’re on trial for.

Some of the things you will need to lean on include everything we described earlier. You might make a case around the fact that your client didn’t have a guilty mind, or the intention to commit a crime and endanger others. Or perhaps there’s a dispute as to the extent of the defendant’s involvement in the crime that you can explore further.

Superprof is an online tutoring platform that connects students with tutors, whether in-person or online. If you want to test the waters with criminal law, and see if it’s for you, then there are many excellent law tutors on the website whose brains you can pick for information.

 

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.