Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Criminal Law Definition:

That body of the law that deals with conduct considered so harmful to society as a whole that it is prohibited by statute, prosecuted and punished by the government.

Related Terms: Crime

The body of law which regulates the repression of crime; prohibition of specified conduct which, in the view of the government, as expressed by statute, interferes with the peace and good order of society to the extent that the proof of such conduct will result in criminal punishment upon the transgressor, in either a fine or a denial of liberty (eg. jail; incarceration).

In 1931, the British Privy Council (Proprietary Articles Trade Assn. v. Canada) used these words:

"... to make criminal, combines which the Legislature in the public interest intends to prohibit.

"The definition is wide, and may cover activities which have not hitherto been considered to be criminal. 

"Criminal law connotes only the quality of such acts or omissions as are prohibited under appropriate penal provisions by authority of the state. The criminal quality of an act cannot be discerned by intuition; nor can it be discovered by reference to any standard but one: Is the Act prohibited with penal consequences? Morality and criminality are far from co-extensive; nor is the sphere of criminality necessarily part of a more extensive field covered by morality -- unless the moral code necessarily disapproves all acts prohibited by the state, in which case the argument moves in a circle. It appears to their Lordships to be of little value to seek to confine crimes to a category of acts which by their very nature belong to the domain of "criminal jurisprudence;" for the domain of criminal jurisprudence can only be ascertained by examining what acts at any particular period are declared by the state to be crimes, and the only common nature they will be found to possess is that they are prohibited by the state and that those who commit them are punished."

In R v Wilcox, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal wrote, of criminal law:

"The essence of criminal law is moral blameworthiness; the essence of regulation is that those engaging in regulated activities maintain a certain minimum standard of care. Criminal offences reinforce crucial social values, the violation of which merits disapprobation and punishment."

In his an American Law Dictionary, jurist John Bouvier wrote:

"... from the very nature of the social compact on which all municipal law is founded, and in consequence of which every man, when he entered into society, gives a part of his natural liberty, result those laws which, in certain cases, author ride the infliction of penalties, the privation of liberty, and even the destruction of life, with a view to the future prevention of crime and to ensuring the safety and well-being of the public."


  • Bouvier, John, Law Dictionary (Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1897).
  • Proprietary Articles Trade Assn. v. Canada 55 C.C.C. 241; also published as Reference re Combines Investigation Act; Reference re s. 498 of the Criminal Code at 2 D.L.R. 1 (1931)
  • R v Wilcox 152 C.C.C. 3d 157 (2001)

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