criminal law, the branch of law that defines crimes, treats of their nature, and provides for their punishment. A tort is a civil wrong committed against an individual; a crime, on the other hand, is regarded as an offense committed against the public, even though only one individual may have been wronged. The real distinction lies in the way a remedy for the wrong is pursued. A tort is a wrong for which the remedy is pursued by, and at the discretion of, the injured individual or his or her representative, while a crime is a wrong for which the wrongdoer is prosecuted by the state for the purpose of punishment. However, the fact that a particular act has been or may be prosecuted as a crime does not necessarily preclude an injured party from seeking recovery from the offender in a civil action.
For an account of criminal law in ancient and medieval times, see composition; vendetta. See also military law; martial law; international law; piracy; war crimes.
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