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What is the law

The law refers to the principles and rules which govern our society. In Singapore, law can refer to legislation (passed by parliament) or common law (made by courts).

It is the duty of the courts to uphold the law and decide cases on the basis of what the law currently is. The courts are specialised according to subject matter: criminal, civil or family law.

Differences between criminal, civil and family law

Criminal, civil and family law differ in the following ways.

(Note: Scroll within the table to see more.)





What it is

Criminal law protects the public by prohibiting certain types of conduct.

Civil law deals with the rights of individuals or legal entities (such as companies). It often involves disputes between parties.

Family law deals with legal issues within the family, such as divorce, probate or family violence. It also covers the care and treatment of young persons.

Parties involved

The state prosecutes an individual for having committed a crime.

Individuals or legal entities (such as companies) may take other individuals or legal entities to court to settle a dispute.

Individuals may take other individuals to court to settle a dispute.

(The state may start a case in some situations, such as for child protection).

Possible outcomes

Persons accused of a crime may be charged in court and punished if found guilty. Punishments can include jail terms, fines or caning, among other things.

Parties at fault may be ordered to pay compensation or comply with court orders.

Parties at fault may be ordered to pay compensation or comply with court orders.

Courts involved

  • State Courts.
  • High Court.
  • Court of Appeal.
  • State Courts.
  • High Court.
  • Court of Appeal.
  • Family Courts.
  • Youth Courts.
  • Family Division of the High Court.


(Note: these are not exhaustive)

  • Homicide.
  • Drug offences.
  • Sexual offences.
  • Cheating.
  • Traffic or regulatory offences.
  • Small claims.
  • Employment claims.
  • Neighbour disputes.
  • Bankruptcy.
  • Breach of contract.
  • Commercial disputes.
  • Divorce.
  • Family violence.
  • Probate and administration.
  • Maintenance.
  • Adoption.
  • Child protection.

Find out more

Note: A single set of facts can give rise to several different types of legal cases.


For example, a car accident caused by a drunk driver that resulted in brain injury to a victim may lead to one or more of the following:

  • A criminal case: The state may charge the drunk driver for driving under the influence of alcohol and causing hurt. The driver may go to jail or be fined.
  • A civil case: The victim sues the driver for the pain and suffering caused by the injuries, loss of income or future earnings. If the victim succeeds in the claim, the driver has to pay damages.

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