In most countries, the typical legal system addresses the offenses people commit in two different ways: civil cases and criminal cases. Crimes are generally offenses against the state, whereas civil cases are disputes between private parties.
Civil and criminal law have very different purposes, which can be seen by looking at the differences in their legal systems. This article breaks down the major differences between civil and criminal law.
Understanding Civil Law
Civil law is a legal system that focuses on resolving disputes between private citizens, businesses, or other organizations. In civil law, the state is not a party to the case. The main purpose of civil law is to provide a way for people to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.
Some common examples of civil law cases include:
- Breach of contract
- Personal injury
- Property damage
- Eminent domain
Civil law cases are usually tried before a judge, although some cases may go to trial before a jury. In a civil law case, the losing party may be required to pay damages to the winning party. In some cases, the court may also order one party to take or refrain from taking a certain action.
Understanding Criminal Law
Criminal law is the body of laws that govern conduct considered harmful to society, such as murder, robbery, and theft. Unlike civil law cases, criminal cases involve the state or government as a party to the case. The main purpose of criminal law is to protect people and society from harm.
Some common examples of criminal law offenses include:
Criminal cases are tried before a judge or jury, depending on the weight of the case. If the defendant is found guilty, the court may order them to pay fines or go to jail. In some cases, the court may also order the defendant to complete community service or undergo drug treatment.
What Are the Key Differences Between Civil Law and Criminal Law?
Now that you have a basic understanding of civil and criminal law, let’s take a look at some of the key differences between these two legal systems:
Criminal laws at the state and federal levels outline what constitutes a crime and establish the specific legal punishments for those found guilty of committing the crimes such as assault, theft, murder, and arson. In short, these cases are only conducted through the criminal justice system.
In contrast, civil law mainly deals with the private rights of citizens. These laws are only applied when a person has had their rights violated or when there are disputes between individuals or individuals vs organizations.
Many civil matters are usually handled outside a court system through third-party mediators. Civil lawsuits may also be resolved through a non-criminal trial.
2. Burden of Proof
In a criminal law case, the state prosecutor has an obligation to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. This is the highest standard of proof in any legal system.
The burden of proof in civil law cases is lower, and plaintiffs only need to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the court will most likely believe the plaintiff’s version of events.
The punishments for criminal convictions are typically more severe than the remedies awarded in civil cases.
The most common punishment for a criminal conviction is imprisonment, but defendants may also be required to pay fines or restitution. Defendants may be placed on probation or ordered to complete community service in some cases.
In contrast, the remedies awarded in civil cases are typically designed to compensate the victim for their losses.
For example, a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit may be awarded damages for medical expenses, lost wages, pain, and suffering, etc. In some cases, the court may also order the defendant to take or refrain from taking a certain action.
4. Right to Attorney
Criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a criminal attorney under the Sixth Amendment, but this does not apply in civil law cases.
The court will appoint a state attorney for indigent defendants in criminal cases, but plaintiffs and defendants must hire their own attorneys in civil matters.
5. Who Files a Case?
Another clear distinction between civil and criminal law lies in who can initiate the case. Civil cases can be initiated by any party that feels aggrieved.
As you might imagine, there is always a potential for this freedom to be abused, especially by individuals or organizations with deep pockets.
In contrast, criminal cases are initiated by the state through a prosecutor. In some cases, victims can also file criminal charges against their attackers. However, only the government has the power to conduct formal investigations and initiate criminal trials.
6. Appealing Rules
One of the foundational principles of a good justice system is fairness. The rules of criminal law aim to promote this principle by allowing defendants to appeal their convictions if they believe that the trial was not conducted in accordance with the set standards.
In contrast, civil law appeals are much more restricted because plaintiffs must be able to prove that there was an error in the judge’s ruling. Therefore, most appeals in civil cases are conducted on the point of law rather than a point of fact.
7. Defendant’s Rights and Protection
Typically, the protections given to defendants under criminal law are quite considerate (such as the protection against seizures and illegal searches). Unfortunately, many of these rights and protections are not available to defendants in a civil case.
8. Jury Trials
Generally, all criminal cases allow for a trial, whereas only a small minority of civil cases go to trial. Most civil cases are resolved through negotiation or mediation.
Civil cases will only proceed to trial if both parties cannot reach a settlement through other means.
In addition, only criminal courts have the power to order jail time for defendants who refuse to comply with court orders, such as fines and restitution payments.
Can the Same Conduct Result in Both Civil and Criminal Liability?
Although civil and criminal cases are treated quite differently, many people fail to realize that the same conduct can result in both civil and criminal liability.
For example, a driver who hits and kills a pedestrian with his car may be charged with both vehicular homicide (a criminal charge) and wrongful death (a civil charge).
It is important to note that the standards of proof required for each type of case are different. In a criminal case, the prosecutor has a responsibility to prove guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, whereas in a civil case, the plaintiff need only prove negligence by a preponderance of the evidence.
While there are many differences between civil and criminal law, it is important to remember that both systems serve an important role in society. Understanding the differences between criminal and civil law is essential for anyone who wants to practice in either field.
This article is written by Naphtal. He is the brand manager at Legal Giant and a highly experienced content writer. Legal Giant is a leading lawyer referral site with clients all over the U.S. When Naphtal is not working, he enjoys spending time with his son and exploring nature.