What’s the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law?

At times, the distinction between civil cases and criminal cases can be a bit blurred.

In both types of litigation, the defendant is tried for violating a law or committing some kind of crime, and the victim is represented in the trial. Sometimes, a crime can even result in both criminal and civil trials, such as in the famous case of OJ Simpson.

The main differences between civil and criminal law come down to this: who files the suit, and what outcomes are possible?


The Differences Between Criminal and Civil Litigation

Civil law deals with contracts and exchanges between private parties (which can be individuals or companies) and the suit is filed by the victim. If the case is decided in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant will probably be expected to pay financial compensation to the victim.

In criminal cases, charges are brought by the state or federal government, even if there was an individual victim. For example, if a person physically harms someone, the government may file assault charges against the assailant. The victim doesn’t need to hire an attorney for those charges.

Criminal penalties can vary. If the defendant is found guilty, they might be fined, or they might be jailed. Sentencing depends on the severity of the crime and the decision of the judge and jury.

Put more simply, civil cases are the type of law where people are sued for money. Criminal cases are the kind in which the suspect may go to jail.

These aren’t the only differences between the two, of course. For our friends who enjoy details, here’s a more in-depth look at the distinctions between civil and criminal law.

What Is Civil Law?

Municipal law (another name for civil law) includes two branches: contract law and tort law. Any kind of contractual agreement is regulated by – you guessed it – contract law. Tort law covers other things that cause loss or harm, including negligence, malicious acts, and libel or slander.

Civil cases are usually decided by a judge, though juries can be involved in significant cases.

The burden of proof is always on the plaintiff in the US legal system, though the criteria is different in civil versus criminal cases. For a plaintiff to win a civil case, they must prove that the “balance of probabilities” is that the defendant is guilty based on the “preponderance of evidence.”

Putting that in plain English, a civil case is likely to be decided in favor of the injured party if it’s most likely that the person they’re suing is guilty.

Defendants don’t have any constitutional rights in civil cases, so the 4th amendment (dealing with searches and seizures) and 5th amendment (dealing with due process) don’t apply.


What Is Criminal Law?

Those 4th and 5th amendment protections apply to the accused in criminal cases.

Criminal law deals with acts that are considered offenses against the public, society, or the state, which is why criminal charges are filed by the government and not by an individual.

A trial by jury is one of those constitutionally protected rights, and criminal cases are most often decided by juries. It’s possible for a defendant to waive their right to jury trial, but it doesn’t happen often.

In order to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if a the defendant is most likely to be guilty, if there’s still reason to doubt his or her guilt, the jury is instructed to return a verdict of innocence.

Penalties for criminal convictions are often much more serious than just financial compensation, so the extra protections for defendants are important. With jail time or other extreme penalties at stake, it makes sense that we’d be more careful.


Do I Need a Civil or a Criminal Attorney?

That might seem like a lot of information to process, but it’s really quite simple.

If you’re being sued or you want to file a suit against another person to get the compensation you deserve, you should talk to a civil attorney.

If criminal charges are being filed against you, you should talk to a defense attorney that’s well versed in criminal law.

When hiring a lawyer to defend you, the most important thing to look for is experience and a good track record with the type of case you’re involved in. For example, if you want to dispute a DUI charge in Montana, you should discuss your case with an experienced local attorney who has successfully defended Montana DUI cases.

Knowing and understanding the nuances between criminal and civil cases isn’t really your job – it’s your lawyer’s. Work with an experienced attorney that you trust, and you’re on the right track.