Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

We hear about court cases constantly in the media. Some of these are criminal cases and some are civil cases. What's the difference? It's important that you understand the difference-especially if you ever find yourself as a defendant in either situation!

Criminal law concerns the commission of a crime. When someone breaks an established law, he or she can be punished through a criminal law process. In a criminal case, the plaintiff-or the one bringing the charges-is always the "government." The government is represented, typically, by a district attorney or a federal prosecutor. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff, or the "state." This is because if the defendant is found guilty, he or she can be punished criminally. This means that the consequences range from serving probation or paying a fine to death!

A civil law case concerns private matters between two different citizens or between citizens and corporations. So, no law has been broken, but one party feels that he or she has been wronged by the other and decides to bring a civil case against the other party. In a civil case, the burden of proof is still with the plaintiff, but the threshold for "proof" is lower. In a civil case, the judge or jury just has to be more than 50% sure that the defendant was "negligent" or "responsible." In a criminal case, the standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt." The punishments in a civil case are also different. Civil law punishments often have to do with paying restitution or "damages" to the plaintiff, and would never include jail time or execution.

Examples of Criminal vs. Civil Cases

Criminal Law Cases


Drug Possession

Child Abuse

Theft by Taking

Civil Law Cases

Injured in a Car Accident-sues other driver

Paid a Contractor for a Job, but job was not completed to satisfaction

Doctor treated injury, but patient died and family sues

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