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Civil law and online abuse

In this step, we explore the role of civil law in combatting online abuse, emphasising its focus on resolving disputes and providing compensation.
Picture illustrating civil law, with a magnifying glass over the words civil law on a page.
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In this step, we explore the role of civil law in combatting online abuse, emphasising its focus on resolving disputes and providing compensation.

Civil law can also play an important role in combating online abuse. Unlike criminal law, which seeks to punish wrongdoing on behalf of society, civil law focuses on resolving disputes between individuals or entities and providing remedies that often involve compensation or the enforcement of rights.

For example, the victim of online defamation (the plaintiff) may seek legal recourse by suing the perpetrator or an involved party (the defendants) for damages. Unlike criminal cases, the victim, not the State, is responsible for initiating and controlling the case. Typically, the aggrieved party may initiate a civil action by filing a complaint in court. The process typically involves presenting evidence and arguments to a judge (and sometimes a jury in civil cases), who then makes a decision based on the applicable laws and regulations. The remedies in civil law can include monetary compensation, injunctions to prevent further harm, or specific performance of a contract.

Like criminal law, there are certain foundational concepts which are important to be aware of and are common across all legal systems:

  1. The plaintiff, the person initiating the civil lawsuit, must be able to establish a cause of action – it must be grounded in some law or legal precedent.
  2. A court must have the authority to hear and decide a civil case. Establishing jurisdiction can be a significant challenge, not least because (a) the victim and perpetrator may be in different jurisdictions and/or (b) the perpetrators may be anonymous.
  3. The plaintiff must have standing i.e., the legal right to initiate the lawsuit. They must be able to show that they have suffered direct and personal harm from the defendant’s actions that can be addressed or remedied by the court. Typically, there must be some causal link between the online abuse and the harm that the victim has suffered. This involves providing evidence to support their claims that meets the preponderance of evidence test i.e., that on the balance of probabilities the perpetrator’s actions led to the harm to the victim. It is important to note that this standard is lower than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and merely requires the claim to be more than likely true.
  4. If successful the court can decide on remedies including monetary compensation (damages) for the harm caused e.g., emotional distress, loss of income, physical suffering etc. In some jurisdictions, e.g., in the US, punitive damages may also be awarded to deter future misconduct. Other remedies include court orders or injunctions requiring the defendant to take certain actions (e.g., removing harmful content) or to refrain from certain behaviours in the future (e.g., staying away from or not contacting the plaintiff).
  5. Defendants also have defences against civil claims. For example, the defendant may claim that the statements made were true (in a defamation case), that the statements were protected under freedom of speech, or that the plaintiff provided consent to publish content.
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