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The generic term used to describe court proceedings that are not criminal in nature. This includes lawsuits by private parties as well as those involving governments. Except in cases concerning civil contempt (actually a quasi-criminal matter) there is seldom a possibility of incarceration to the losing party.

In most jurisdictions actions are divided only into two kinds, namely, criminal and civil. A criminal action is prosecuted by the state as a party, against a person charged with a public offence, for the punishment thereof. Every other action is a civil action. In common parlance, however, writs of mandamus, certiorari, habeas corpus, etc., are not comprised by the expression.