Most aspects of our lives are affected by the law, which develops and establishes rules about relationships both between individual people, and between individuals and society. The Australian legal system can be divided into civil and criminal law. Criminal law provides a means for society to judge whether people have committed crimes, and to punish those people found guilty. In contrast, civil law generally deals not with punishment, but with ensuring that the legal entitlements and obligations of people to each other are upheld, for example through the law of contract.

An action by a person may have consequences in both criminal and civil law. For example, a driver involved in a car accident may face criminal liability (a charge for dangerous driving) and civil liability (a claim for compensation for damage to another vehicle).

Criminal liability only arises if the person charged is found by a court to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The standard of proof for civil matters is different: civil liability arises if the defendant is found on the balance of probabilities to have acted wrongly.

Laws that make specified acts into criminal offences are enforced through the criminal justice system. This system is made up of a number of processes that work together to ensure that breaches of the law are detected and dealt with. The elements of the criminal justice system include investigation by the police, arrest, interrogation, bail, trial, sentencing and the administration of sentences (such as fines or imprisonment).

The main aims of the criminal justice system are to punish and prevent crime. There is debate about the extent to which sentencing practices can or do affect levels of crime. Other elements of the criminal justice system (such as policing practices and crime detection rates) may have an influence on crime rate which is as great or greater than sentencing. The importance of sentencing, however, lies also in its role as a highly symbolic and public declaration of how society regards the offence and the offender. Sentencing is usually conducted in open court, allowing the community to see how justice is done in each particular case.

In Australia, criminal law, including sentencing, mainly operates at the State level, although there are proposals to establish a model national criminal code. Federal laws provide for offences in certain areas (such as drug importation).

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