According to criminal law, crimes are offences against the social order. In common law jurisdictions, there is a legal fiction that crimes disturb the peace of the sovereign. Government officials, as agents of the sovereign, are responsible for the prosecution of offenders. Hence, the criminal law “plaintiff” is the sovereign, which in practical terms translates into the monarch or the people.
The major objective of criminal law is deterrence and punishment, while that of civil law is individual compensation. Criminal offences consist of two distinct elements; the physical act (the actus reus, guilty act) and the requisite mental state with which the act is done (the mens rea, guilty mind). For example, in murder the ‘actus reus is the unlawful killing of a person, while the ‘mens rea is malice aforethought (the intention to kill or cause grievous injury). The criminal law also details the defenses that defendants may bring to lessen or negate their liability (criminal responsibility) and specifies the punishment which may be inflicted. Criminal law neither requires a victim, nor a victim’s consent, to prosecute an offender. Furthermore, a criminal prosecution can occur over the objections of the victim and the consent of the victim is not a defense in most crimes.