If "illegal" is typically used for criminal law, what adjective or adjectives are generally used for breaking civil law?

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    As the accurate answers given indicate, the premise of your question is incorrect, although it is a common misconception.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 24, 2019 at 21:02
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    Possibly tortious. Feb 24, 2019 at 21:32
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    @ohwilleke: I was basing this on Google's definition of "contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law." (at google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=define%3Aillegal ) and did note I was speaking of "typically", but if it is regularly used, I stand corrected. I was also thrown by english.stackexchange.com/questions/373704/… and in any case interested in alternatives which were civil only. Feb 24, 2019 at 23:54
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    @CJDennis Nope. Offensive means contrary to standards of propriety and could be civil, criminal or not illegal but contrary to informal cultural norms.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 24, 2019 at 23:56
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    Helpful, @TimLymington, but are there no adjectives which would refer to breaking civil law only (including non-tort civil law), such as an alternative for "illegal immigrant" which avoided the ambiguity of suggesting a violation of criminal law? Feb 25, 2019 at 0:33

4 Answers 4


The term "illegal" is also often used for actions that the law prohibits, but that give rise to civil liability, rather than criminal prosecution. We see such use a lot in questions on Law.SE. One also says that a person "is liable" when there are grounds for a civil suit against that person. One might also say that such a person "has commited a tort" or "has civil liability" or "could be held liable". In the specific cases of copyright, trademark, and patent law, one says that a violator "his infringed" or has committed infringement" and that an act contrary to those laws "is an infringement".

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    Another word for many, but not all, non-criminal wrongs is "actionable."
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 26, 2019 at 4:38

“Illegal” is not limited to criminal matters

Illegal and unlawful are synonymous and refer to any conduct which is in breach of any law. So:

  • Murder is illegal and a crime
  • Stopping in a No Stopping zone is illegal and a civil offence
  • Breaking a contract is illegal and exposes the breacher to civil damages
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    I have rarely if ever heard legal professionals refer to breach of contract as "illegal", at least not in ordinary US commercial law. What is the law that you see being broken?
    – Hasse1987
    Feb 25, 2019 at 0:04
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    @Hasse1987 Contract law - the one that obliges you to fulfill your contracts.
    – Dale M
    Feb 25, 2019 at 0:28
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    @DaleM A common view is it doesn't oblige you, it allows you to choose between fulfilling it and paying some money. You can try to analogize this to the criminal law, but I don't believe that agrees with common usage. Are you arguing from a dictionary definition? If so you should state so in your answer.
    – Hasse1987
    Feb 25, 2019 at 3:01
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    @Hasse1987 that might be a common view in a figurative sense but a contract is literally a declaration of obligations of the respective parties. It seems very strange to argue that the language of legal obligation is categorically inappropriate where a party voluntarily takes on a new legal obligation and discloses his undertaking to be bound by this obligation.
    – Will
    Feb 25, 2019 at 10:57
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    Not the best of examples, these. Stopping in a no-stopping zone is a criminal offence in some jurisdictions.
    – JdeBP
    Feb 25, 2019 at 14:44

Tortious might be an adjective you could use. The word essentially means a civil violation (although in a strict legal definition, I believe there also need to be some kind of proveable damages).

I usually only see it in the phrase "tortious interference", but I suspect a legal audience at least would understand its meaning alone.

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    I have seen this used in "Tortious conduct". Strictly speaking, it does not apply to a civil wrong that is not a tort. Interestingly (at least to me), the root is the same as "torture", The wrong was metaphorically an inflection of pain. Feb 25, 2019 at 22:36

In the comments to the question, the OP talks about immigration law. US immigration law uses the terms lawful and unlawful to encompass both criminal, civil, and regulatory aspects of immigration law.

This includes immigration violations where there isn't an intent to immigrate. For example, somebody can be "unlawfully present" when they overstay their visa by accident. If you called it "illegal immigrant", you can imply an intent to immigrate.

Similarly, if you hold a green card, you're a "lawful permanent resident".

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    Under the definition of immigrant at 8 USC 1101(a)(15), anyone who isn't a US citizen or national or a member of one of the enumerated nonimmigrant classes is an immigrant, regardless of intent (except inasmuch as intent is relevant to determining membership in some of those classes). So someone whose nonimmigrant status lapses is indeed an immigrant for the purpose of the INA.
    – phoog
    Feb 25, 2019 at 23:51
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    @phoog I don't follow. Somebody comes in legitimately on a B-1 visa which according to (15)(B) makes them a nonimmigrant alien. They screw up their flights and stay one day over. By what regulation do they become an "immigrant"? Where does it say that the intent of returning home, in (15)(B),no longer matters?
    – user71659
    Feb 25, 2019 at 23:59
  • There's no regulation that says that explicitly, because the regulations are more concerned with the fact that the person you describe becomes deportable, and the law surrounding deportable aliens does not generally distinguish between immigrants and nonimmigrants. But 8 CFR 214.1(a)(3) notes that overstaying may constitute a failure to maintain status ("may" perhaps gives some discretion) and by 8 USC 1101(a)(15), any alien without valid nonimmigrant status is an immigrant.
    – phoog
    Feb 26, 2019 at 5:27
  • The discretion implied by "may" perhaps saves your business visitor who messed up the flights. But maybe not. It's not a good idea to plan to stay exactly six months on a visitor visa.
    – phoog
    Feb 26, 2019 at 5:33
  • @phoog You're missing the point of my answer completely. The point is you need a general term to refer to somebody who's not supposed to be in the country regardless of immigrant intent and that's "unlawfully present". I don't see anything in your links that says an unintentionally overstaying a business visa is somehow better described as an "illegal immigrant". All I see is some definitions and unimportant facts about deportation.
    – user71659
    Feb 26, 2019 at 5:37

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