Civil law and criminal law are two separate limbs of the legal system in America. Each one is broad, with its own set of laws and punishments. There are several differences between criminal cases and civil cases. Criminal cases aim to punish the offender, who has offended the state (or society). Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, are filed to get the offender to make good the wrong they’ve done to another individual. Civil cases may involve matters such as small claims, personal injury or property damage. By contrast, criminal cases involve misdemeanors or felonies committed against the state. Five major differences between the two entities are listed below:


#1 Who Files the Case?

Criminal cases, such as murder cases, are prosecuted by the state. The offender has offended the state. Therefore, the persecutor acts on behalf of the state and files the case in court for criminal offenses. Although the offender may have wronged another individual in a criminal case, he has also committed a crime against the state, so there is a need for criminal proceedings. Civil cases are filed when the offense is against an individual who seeks restitution or compensation to right the wrongs done to him (or her) by the defendant. The plaintiff files a civil lawsuit against the defendant, often with the help of a hired attorney.


#2 Burden of Proof

The standard of proof is lower for civil cases. While criminal cases must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, civil cases follow standards like the preponderance of the evidence. In other words, if something seems more likely to have happened a certain way than not, the case is proven. The criminal defendant is entitled to an attorney, and the state must provide one he/she cannot afford one. In civil cases, the defendant must provide their own representation. The differences in standards of proof exist because civil cases are considered less blameworthy and the punishments less severe.


#3 Legal Protections

The defendants in criminal cases are afforded many protections under law, such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures. Those same protections are not available to defendants in civil cases.


#4 Jury or Judge?

Many civil cases are decided by a judge, although juries may be involved in some civil cases. Criminal cases are almost always tried by juries, per the Bill of Rights and trial by jury.


#5 The Punishment

Criminal cases have jail and prison sentences and potentially even death depending on the state as a potential punishment. In civil cases, the punishment usually only involves monetary payment for damages, though other types of restitution are ordered as well.



Perhaps the most notable difference between the civil and criminal law is that with criminal cases, a defendant is brought up on charges, while an individual files a lawsuit against another individual/company in civil cases. Criminal offenses are harder to prove than civil cases; however, the same conduct that leads to a criminal case can prove a civil case. If a criminal is not found guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, they could still be proven guilty in a civil case for the same conduct. The laws, proceedings, and punishments for criminal cases and civil cases differ significantly.



Bachus & Schanker Law

“Civil Law vs Criminal Law.” (n.d.). Diffen LLC.

Reuters, T. (2017). The differences between a criminal case and a civil case.

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