It is difficult to define crime, as it must encompass a range of offences: everything from murder to motoring offences.

Farmer argues the definition of crime depends on your perspective (e.g. you will have a different definition of crime depending on the political and social factors in the country you live).

Nevertheless, the simple definition is that a crime is conduct defined as such by statute or by common law. In other words, and not very helpfully, something is a crime if the law says it is a crime.

In Board of Trade v Owen (1957), Lord Tucker defined crime as “an unlawful act or default which is an offence against the public and renders the person guilty of the act or default liable to legal punishment”.

  • However, this definition can be criticised as not reflecting current attitudes to crime: for example, it only mentions ‘punishment’ as a response to crime and not other responses to crime, such as restoritative justice.


Defining what is a crime is important if we are to distinguish a crime from a civil wrong

  • If you assault someone, for example, this is both a crime and a tort. Technically, through either route (criminal or tort) a financial loss may be incurred by the defendant: in criminal law the defendant could be fined, whereas in tort law the defendant may be sued for damages.
  • Thus, the importance in distinguishing a crime from a civil wrong lies in the moral blame the defendant will be exposed to if convicted of a crime.
  • If you are guilty of a crime you will have to carry a certain level of condemnation (i.e. public dissaproval) that does not necessarily exist if convicted of a tortious offence.
  • Although, note, it may still be possible to award punitive damages in civil proceedings (e.g. tort proceedings) if the court regards the tort or breach of contract as a particularly blameworthy one.