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Civil Justice - Primary and Sanctioning Rights

We proceed now to the consideration of civil justice and to the analysis of the various forms assumed by it. It consists, as we have seen, in the enforcement of rights, as opposed to the punishment of wrongs. The first distinction to be noticed is that the right so enforced is either a Primary or a Sanctioning right. A sanctioning right is one which arises out of the violation of another right. All others are primary; they are rights which have some other source than wrongs. Thus my right not to be libelled or assaulted is primary; but my right to obtain pecuniary compensation from one who has libelled or assaulted me is sanctioning. My right to the fulfilment of a contract made with me is primary, but my right to damages for its breach is sanctioning.

The administration of civil justice, therefore, falls into two parts, according as the right enforced belongs to the one or the other of these two classes. Sometimes it is impossible for the law to enforce the primary right, sometimes it is possible but not expedient. If by negligence I destroy another man’s property, his right to this property is necessarily extinct and no longer enforceable. The law, therefore, gives him in substitution for it a new and sanctioning right to receive from me the pecuniary value of the property that he has lost. If on the other hand I break a promise of marriage, it is still possible, but it is certainly not expedient, that the law should specifically enforce the right, and compel me to enter into that marriage; and it enforces instead a sanctioning right of pecuniary satisfaction. A sanctioning right almost invariably consists of a claim to receive money from the wrongdoer, and we shall here disregard any other forms, as being quite exceptional.

The enforcement of a primary right may be conveniently termed specific enforcement. For the enforcement of a sanctioning right there is no very suitable generic term, but we may venture to call it sanctional enforcement.

Examples of specific enforcement are proceedings whereby a defendant is compelled to pay a debt, to perform a contract, to restore land or chattels wrongfully taken or detained, to refrain from committing or continuing a trespass or nuisance, or to repay money received by mistake or obtained by fraud. In all these cases the right enforced is the primary right itself, not a substituted sanctioning right. What the law does is to insist on the specific establishment or re-establishment of the actual state of things required by the rule of right, not of another state of things which may be regarded as its equivalent or substitute.

Sanctioning rights may be divided into two kinds by reference to the purpose of the law in creating them. This purpose is either

  1. the imposition of a pecuniary penalty upon the defendant for the wrong which he has committed, or
  2. the provision of pecuniary compensation for the plaintiff in respect of the damage which he has suffered from the defendant's wrongdoing.

Sanctioning rights, therefore, are either

  1. rights to exact and receive a pecuniary penalty, or
  2. rights to exact and receive damages or other pecuniary compensation.

The first of these kinds is rare in modem English law, though it was at one time of considerable importance both in our own and in other legal systems. But it is sometimes the case even yet, that the law creates and enforces a sanctioning right which has in it no element of compensation to the person injured, but is appointed solely as a punishment for the wrongdoer. For example, a statute may make provision for a pecuniary penalty payable to a common informer, that is to say, to anyone who shall first sue the offender for it. Such an action is called a penal action, as being brought for the recovery of a penalty. But it is none the less a purely civil, and in no respect a criminal proceeding. Primarily and immediately, it is an action for the enforcement of a right, not for the punishment of a wrong A It pertains, therefore, to the civil administration of justice, no less than an ordinary action for the recovery of a debt. The mere fact that the sanctioning right thus enforced is created by the law for the purpose of punishment does not bring the action within the sphere of criminal justice. In order that a proceeding should be criminal it is necessary that its direct and immediate purpose should be punishment, it is not enough that its purpose should be the enforcement of a right which has been created by way of punishment. A proceeding is civil if it is one for the enforcement of a right, and the source, nature, and purpose of the right so enforced are irrelevant.

The second form of sanctioning right; the right to pecuniary compensation or damages; is in modem law by far the more important. It may be stated as a general rule, that the violation of a private right gives rise, in him whose right it is, to a sanctioning right to receive compensation for the injury so done to him Such compensation must itself be divided into two kinds, which may be distinguished as Restitution and Penal Redress. In respect of the person injured, indeed, these two are the same in their nature and operation, but in respect of the wrongdoer they are very different. In restitution the defendant is compelled to give up the pecuniary value of some benefit which he has wrongfully obtained at the expense of the plaintiff, as when he who has wrongfully taken or detained another's goods is made to pay him the pecuniary value of them, or when he who has wrongfully enriched himself at another's expense is compelled to account to him for all money so obtained.

Penal redress, on the other hand, is a much more common and important form of legal remedy than mere restitution. The law is seldom content to deal with a wrongdoer by merely compelling him to restore all benefits which he has derived from his wrong; it commonly goes further, and compels him to pay the amount of the plaintiff’s loss, and this may far exceed the profit, if any, which he has himself received. It is clear that compensation of this kind has a double aspect and nature, from the point of view of the plaintiff it is compensation and nothing more, but from that of the defendant it is a penalty imposed upon him for his wrongdoing The compensation of the plaintiff is in such cases the instrument which the law uses for the punishment of the defendant, and because of this double aspect we call it penal redress. Thus if I burn down my neighbour’s house by negligence, I must pay him the value of it. The wrong is then undone with respect to him, indeed, for he is put in as good a position as if it had not been committed Formerly he had a house, and now he has the worth of it. But the wrong is not undone with respect to me, for I am the poorer by the value of the house, and to this extent I have been punished for my negligence.

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