Courts provide a means to settle legal disputes. The dispute can be between two individuals. This is known as a civil matter. The dispute can concern criminal activity and therefore concerns the public as a whole. This is known as a criminal matter.
It’s not unusual to have different types of law overlap from one single set of circumstances. For example, an assault can lead to criminal charges as well as a civil suit for injuries suffered. Collisions involving impaired drivers can lead to criminal charges as well as lawsuits to compensate for property damage and personal injuries.
Dockets are formal records that note the proceedings and filings in a particular court case and may also refer to a court schedule. The case names can reveal a bit about the nature of the dispute.
R. v. John Doe
A criminal case is referenced as “R” versus the defendant. The “R” stands for Regina or Rex, the Latin terms for Queen or king. This symbolizes that it is the state or government that is bringing the charges against an individual defendant on behalf of the people.
John Doe v. R.
If the case is an appeal of a criminal matter, it is John Doe challenging the state, so R appears second.
R. v. J. D.
Generally, the Youth Criminal Justice Act does not allow for the public release of the names of people under 18 involved in criminal acts. Their initials are used to protect their identity.
John Doe v. Jane Roe
If only names of individuals or entities appear, the court case is a civil matter. In this case, the plaintiff’s name appears first followed by the respondent's name.
A civil dispute deals with the specific interests of individuals or entities (e.g. corporations). This type of dispute is often referred to as a private dispute. Civil law covers a range of issues such as negligence, wills and estates, debts, contracts, and family law matters such as divorce, child custody, family property division, and enforcement of support payments.
In civil law cases, the party who starts the action seeking damages or some other remedy is usually called the plaintiff. The party against whom the remedy is sought is called the defendant. In family law matters, the person making an application to the court is called the petitioner. The person who must respond to the application is called the respondent.
Criminal law matters involve a public interest. Society as a whole says that certain conduct is not acceptable and imposes a penalty for individuals who engage in such behaviour. Criminal law is broad in scope (from theft to treason; murder to air piracy). In general, criminal offences are set out in the Criminal Code and other federal statutes such as the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and the Food and Drugs Act. Offences established by provincial statutes (e.g. The Alcohol and Gaming Regulation Act) or municipal bylaws (e.g. parking bylaws) are not, strictly speaking, criminal offences, though a penalty may be imposed for violating these laws.
The individual charged with committing a criminal offence is known as the accused. In Canadian law, crimes are dealt with as wrongs against society as a whole, not as simply private matters between two people, even though individuals often suffer injury or damage. Because of this, criminal proceedings are conducted in the name of the Queen to represent the interest of the state. The lawyer representing the Queen—called the Crown Counsel or Prosecutor—is therefore not the victim’s lawyer, but is acting on behalf of all members of the public.