If you’re at all curious about the topic, you’ve likely already employed the tried-and-true method of checking the Merriam-Webster dictionary.1 Here’s what they have to offer:
“Criminal law” definition: The law of crimes and their punishments.
“Civil law” definition: The law of civil or private rights.
While these statements are accurate, they’re not quite the expansive definitions you’re looking for. You likely have additional follow-up questions, so let’s dig into some of the basic differentiators between civil and criminal law.
While both deal with resolving a wrong committed by one party to another, there are several primary differences between criminal law and civil law, including:
The conduct at issue
Burden of proof
Statutes of limitations
Who initiates a case
When it comes to enrolling for initial classes (and even beyond), many prospective lawyers aren’t fully sure what type of law they want to pursue––criminal or civil––and that’s perfectly OK.
But navigating your degree and assessing the future at the same time can be daunting, especially when you’re gearing up to work toward a law degree. Thankfully, most law schools understand this and don’t require incoming students to immediately define the type of law they’ll be pursuing upon enrollment.
As you embark on your studies, understanding the difference between criminal and civil law is one of the first things you study. As you progress through law school, learning your preference becomes increasingly pertinent to both your education and career path, as both come with a plethora of job opportunities and responsibilities.
Criminal law and civil law differ with respect to how cases are initiated (who may bring charges or file suit), how cases are decided (by a judge or a jury), what kinds of punishment or penalty may be imposed, what standards of proof must be met, and what legal protections may be available to the defendant.
In criminal cases, for example, only the federal or a state government (the prosecution) may initiate a case; cases are almost always decided by a jury; punishment for serious (felony) charges often consists of imprisonment but may also include a fine paid to the government; to secure conviction, the prosecution must establish the guilt of the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt”; and defendants are protected against conduct by police or prosecutors that violates their constitutional rights, including the right against unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment) and the right against compelled self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment).
In civil cases, by contrast, cases are initiated (suits are filed) by a private party (the plaintiff); cases are usually decided by a judge (though significant cases may involve juries); punishment almost always consists of a monetary award and never consists of imprisonment; to prevail, the plaintiff must establish the defendant’s liability only according to the “preponderance of evidence”; and defendants are not entitled to the same legal protections as are the criminally accused.
Criminal Case vs. Civil Case: Distinctions
Here are some of the key differences between a criminal case and a civil case:
Crimes are considered offenses against the state, or society as a whole
Criminal offenses and civil offenses are generally different in terms of the punishments they can bring
The standard of proof is also very different in a criminal case versus a civil case
Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by jury
A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney
The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable
Crimes are Offenses Against the State
Even though one person might murder a particular person, the murder itself is considered an offense to everyone in society. Accordingly, crimes against the state are prosecuted by the state, and the prosecutor (not the victim) files the case in court as a representative of the state. If it were a civil case, then the wronged party would file the case.
Differences in Punishment
Civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something, known as injunctions. Note that a criminal case may involve both jail time and, in the form of fines, monetary punishments. In general, because criminal cases have greater consequences including the possibility of jail and even death, criminal cases have many more protections in place and are more difficult to prove.
Criminal trial evidence standard
A criminal case hinges on whether the evidence proves that the defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecution must show, with credible evidence, that the only logical explanation for how the crime occurred is that the defendant caused it to happen. The judge or jury must believe to a “moral certainty” that the defendant committed the crime.
Credible evidence is a standard required in criminal trials, which means the jury must conclude that the evidence presented is natural, reasonable, and probable.
Civil trial evidence standard
Just like in a criminal trial, a judge or jury needs to be sure the defendant is liable in a civil lawsuit. But the standard is slightly different. In a civil proceeding, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the event was more likely than not to have occurred, or that 51% of the evidence favors the plaintiff’s outcome.
In Simpson’s criminal trial, the jury found that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the murders. However, the jury in the subsequent civil trial determined that a preponderance of the evidence indicated that he was liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Burden of proof
A burden of proof is an obligation that will back up any claim or will prove the claim that is being made. There is a significant difference in the burden of proof between the criminal case and the civil case. There are severe penalties that are imposed in criminal cases as compared to civil cases. As a result, there is a higher burden of proof in criminal cases and a lower burden of proof in civil cases.
Initiation of the case
One of the differences between civil and criminal laws is who will initiate the case. In civil law, almost anyone can file a case. However, there are some laws in place to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), which impact who may file a civil case. In criminal cases, the government initiates the case on the victim’s behalf as they work in coordination with law enforcement agencies. A punishment is given to the offender if they are found guilty by the court.
How do I determine whether my case is civil or criminal?
Generally speaking, your case will be civil in nature if you complete or receive:
A statement of claim, such as a claim in contract, negligence, insurance or tort law,
An application, such as for family law proceedings, or
A summons which contains matters of a civil nature.
Your case will generally be criminal in nature if:
You have been arrested,
You attend a police station and are given ‘charge sheets’ and/or a ‘court attendance notice’, or
You receive a court attendance notice in the mail (known as a future court attendance notice.
In some Australian jurisdictions, criminal charges also brought by a summons which will outline the criminal charge/s and the date on which you are required to attend court.
People who suffer damage can’t wait too long to take legal action.
The law has certain deadlines. This is called extinctive prescription.
The deadlines vary depending on the type of case. For example, someone who wants to sue for defamation – damage to a person’s reputation – has one year to take a case.
When a crime takes place, the lawyer for the prosecution decides whether there is enough evidence to accuse someone of the crime.
Generally, there is no deadline for bringing a criminal case against someone of a crime.
However, for a crime “punishable by summary conviction”, the deadline for taking a case is 1 year after the date of the crime.
The Criminal Code states whether a crime is punishable in this way.
If the judge decides in favour of the person who suffered damage, the judge can require the person responsible for the damage to compensate the other person, by ordering the payment of a sum of money, for example.
However, the judge cannot order imprisonment in a civil case, unless someone is in contempt of court. Contempt of court includes not following a court order, or failing to show the proper respect for a judge or for court rules.
If the accused is found guilty, the judge can order different punishments.
For example, she can order the guilty person to go to jail, pay a fine or do community work.
In some cases, the judge can also require the guilty party to compensate the victim for any damage.
There are many differences between criminal law and civil law. Criminal law is designed to punish the offender – aiming for deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution. Criminal law is designed to prevent offenders from carrying out the offence again, aiming for a law-abiding society.
Civil law, on the other hand, aims to correct unfair situations – often by compensating the victim. The main aim is to leave the victim back in a situation that they were in before they were wronged.
Another key difference between criminal law and civil law is the place in which the cases are seen. Criminal court cases either take place in Crown Court, Magistrates’ Court, or the Youth Court. Civil cases, however, usually take place in County Court or the High Court, depending on the case itself.
You can also have different tribunals – for example, Employment Tribunals. Criminal cases are brought by the government via The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), whereas civil cases are brought by individuals or organizations.
The verdict or decision process also differs between criminal cases and civil cases. In criminal cases, you are found guilty or not guilty. A guilty verdict means that you’ll likely experience rehabilitation penalties, community orders, fines, or prison depending on a variety of factors (e.g severity of the case, plea, age).
The result of civil cases, on the other hand, will either result in you being found liable, partly liable, or not liable. Justice is still the aim of civil cases, like with criminal cases. However, justice is achieved through a different process. Often, the court will award money in the form of damages or compensation, that is payable by the opposing party.
Although civil law and criminal law are designed to address different forms of wrongdoing, they share some similarities. They even intersect from time to time.
In criminal law, offenses are considered crimes against the state. However, some cases may have both criminal and civil trials.
For instance, in our earlier road rage example at the beginning of this post, you (the victim) can sue the errant driver for civil damages resulting from their brake-checking crime.
This would be in addition to the criminal charges they would face against the state for violating the Texas Transportation Code.
There have also been instances where cases concluded in criminal courts (such as arson, aggravated assault, and murder) are assigned to civil litigators to pursue compensation for individual human rights violations. The most interesting ones usually challenge the sentence on constitutional grounds.
That said, the outcomes of civil and criminal proceedings are not mutually exclusive. An individual charged with a crime can be found not guilty and walk and yet still be liable for the same conduct in a civil trial.
Defendants in criminal law are prosecuted by the state for their crimes. The Crown Prosecution Service is a government body that prosecutes cases investigated by the police.
For civil law cases, the cases can be between individuals or between individuals and organisations. In civil law, the case is brought to the court by the “claimant” and the “defendant” is the one accused of wrongdoing.
Criminal cases are seen in criminal courts. There are various types of criminal courts, including the Magistrates’ court, Crown Court, and Youth Court.
Civil cases can be seen in a variety of courts and tribunals. Civil proceedings are generally brought in the County Court or the High Court, depending on the value of the case. There are also specific tribunals, such as the Employment Tribunal, for certain branches of law.
Standard of Proof
To prove guilt in a criminal case, the standard of proof is incredibly high. Prosecutors must prove the case “beyond all reasonable doubt”. This means that the jury or judge must be “certain so you can be sure”.
In civil cases, the burden of proof is less onerous. In civil law, to succeed, the claimant only needs to prove their case based on the balance of probabilities.This means they have to prove that their case is more likely than not to be correct.
In most civil cases, the judge or jury has to make a decision about which side wins based on a standard called “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that, if you win, your side of the story is more likely than not. It does not mean that one side brought in more evidence than the other side. It means that one side’s evidence was more believable than the other’s.
In some cases, the standard for reaching a decision is “clear and convincing evidence.” This means that, for you to win, you have to prove that your version of the facts is highly probably or reasonably certain, or “substantially more likely than not.”
BUT neither of these standards is as strong as the standard in criminal cases, which requires the state to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime he or she is being charged with beyond a reasonable doubt.