What Is Substantive Criminal Law?

If you and your attorney are working through a criminal court case, you may come across the phrase “substantive criminal law.” What does this mean, exactly?


To explain this term, we must put it into context. The body of laws that govern us (at the federal, state and local levels) fall into two categories: substantive law and procedural law. Substantive law has to do with the laws directly governing the citizens—how the state and citizens relate to each other, and how citizens relate to other citizens. Substantive criminal law specifically defines what constitutes certain crimes, as well as prescribed penalties when someone is convicted of those crimes. Substantive civil law deals with such things as laying out the rules of formal agreements between citizens, as well as the citizens’ rights and responsibilities in such agreements.

By contrast, procedural law has to do with rules that effectively govern the government—what the government may and may not do to enforce the law and penalize offenders. Procedural law oversees such things as court procedures, how crimes are investigated, and what must be proven by the state to convict someone of a crime.

In short, substantive law refers to the actual laws that govern the people, and procedural law creates the mechanisms by which substantive law is enforced. Thus, if you are being investigated for or accused of a crime, the charges against you fall under the category of substantive criminal law. Procedural law will determine how the state tries your case. This is precisely why you need an experienced criminal attorney if you are accused of a crime; while you’re accused of breaking substantive criminal law, the attorney will help ensure that procedural law is correctly applied to your case.


For expert advice for your criminal case, call the Federal Criminal Law Center today at 404.633.3797.