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The Differences Between Criminal Law and Civil Law

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Wooden gavel and books on wooden tableIn the American legal system, there are two broad areas of law. These areas are divided between criminal and civil matters. While each area of the law deals with very different rules and carries different consequences, there are many occasions where the same action can fall under either area of law. For example, while theft is a crime that can be punishable with either a fine or jail time, it can also be a course of civil action brought about by the victim. Even though criminal and civil matters may concern the same incident, the outcome of the case may be different depending on which area of law the case is under.

Purpose of the Case

While most people might think that the purpose of any court case is to see that justice is done, criminal cases and civil cases have different purposes that can further define the outcome of a case. Whereas the purpose of a criminal case is to identify and punish someone who has broken the law, the purpose of a civil case is to settle a dispute between parties who can no longer come to an agreement on their own. This difference in purpose leads to further differences in the way a case is carried out, and the way the parties are treated in court.

Bringing the Case to Court

Naturally, at the start of any case, there must be somebody to bring the case to court. While every case must have a legal basis in order to bring it before the court, one of the most notable differences between criminal law and civil law is who exactly brings the case before the court.

Most people might think that a criminal case is predicated on a victim’s desire to “press charges” against a wrongdoer. In reality, the victim has little say on whether charges will be filed against an alleged wrongdoer. The primary entity responsible for bringing about a criminal case is the state, through the state’s prosecutors. Interestingly enough, while a victim’s compliance with the prosecutors can go a long way to assist prosecutors in their investigations, criminal charges can, and in some occasions, will continue without the victim’s assent or assistance. In criminal situations, it is the prosecutor, not the victim, that makes the final decision on whether to proceed with the case.

On the other hand, the civil case can be brought about by any entity, whether they are a private citizen or a corporation. Just as there are different purposes for each case, criminal and civil cases also treat the involved parties differently, by providing them with different benefits or rights.

Rights of the Parties

Because of the severity of the nature of a criminal case, in which a person’s freedom may be taken away from them, criminal defendants are awarded certain rights that are established to ensure a fair trial. For example, a fair number of criminal defendants are allowed the right to a jury trial, the right to legal assistance, and the right to avoid self-incrimination, through the Constitution. While there are extensive protections offered to defendants of criminal trials, these protections are not extended to parties of civil cases. It should be noted, however, that among all protections offered to criminal defendants, one particular protection is what creates the biggest divide between criminal and civil cases.

Proving the Case

When proving any case, it is vital to ensure that the plaintiff has enough evidence to actually prove that an event occurred the way they said it did. Most people might not be aware, however, that there are differing standards between criminal and civil cases.

As with other protections that are given to defendants of criminal cases, criminal defendants are also awarded the protection of the highest standard of proof in the U.S. legal system. Under criminal law, it is the prosecutor’s responsibility to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime, or crimes, she has been charged with. This means that the prosecutor’s assertions must be supported by evidence by which a reasonable person would have no reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

On the other hand, the burden of proof in a civil case is less strict, and will generally be the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires only that the assertion is proved to be more likely true than not. The reason for this difference in proof is because, even though both civil and criminal cases may come with monetary payments or fines, only the defendant of a criminal case is at risk of imprisonment, or even death, in certain cases.

The biggest consequence of this difference in proof, however, is that the same action can provide different outcomes in the criminal and civil courts. For example, a person may be found not guilty of the crime of murder in criminal proceedings, due to the heightened burden of proof. However, they may still be found to be responsible for the wrongful death of a party, as well as inflicting emotional distress to surviving victims, in a civil case brought against them.

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