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What is the Difference Between Criminal Law and Civil Law?

By Kerrie Main
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many people are familiar with criminal law because of the media coverage surrounding infamous cases, but people are less knowledgeable about civil law, or tort law. Typically, unless a person is an attorney or personally involved in the court case, the differences between the two types of law can be obtuse. There are several distinctions between them, however, including the type of crime, who files the lawsuit, punishments, and the burden of proof. Basically, criminal law is for violations of statutory crime and punishment, and civil law deals with non-criminal disagreements.

Criminal law usually involves distinctly illegal behavior, and civil law involves disagreements when no law has been broken. Examples of criminal cases include robbery, murder, battery, or assault crimes. Civil cases typically encompass disputes between property owners and tenants, divorces, contract disagreements, real property issues and intellectual property disputes. In criminal cases, the government always files the litigation or lawsuit. In civil law, the plaintiff files the lawsuit and usually is a private party such as a person or corporation.

Some attorneys and lawmakers believe that the notion of punishment is the main difference between the two types of law. Punishment for a criminal offense is very different, because the defendant can be punished by incarceration, fines, or even execution. In the United States, statutory crimes are divided into two main categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors usually have a maximum sentence of a one-year incarceration, and felonies usually have a minimum of a one-year incarceration.

In civil law, the "loser" of the case typically has to reimburse the other party financial for losses or other damages. There also can be punitive damages awarded in civil law, which consist of making the defendant an example to deter similar future behavior. These types of damages are possible when the defendant has been proven to have a malicious intent, gross negligence, or a willful disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.

The burden of proof also differs greatly between civil law and criminal law. In civil law, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff at first but sometimes can shift to the defendant. Also, if the judge or jury believes that the evidence favors the plaintiff with at least a 50% probability, the plaintiff wins the case. This is very different from criminal cases, which require the judges or juries to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt — essentially 98 or 99% sure — that the defendants are guilty. In such cases, the burden of proof rests solely on the prosecutor and typically does not switch to the defendant at any point in the litigation.

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Discussion Comments

By mutsy — On Sep 05, 2010

SauteePan-I remember that case. OJ Simpson hired a criminal defense law firm of Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, F.Lee Bailey, Robert Kardasheian and Barry Scheck the DNA expert.

It was said that he hired over seven criminal lawyers for his criminal defense from criminal law firms all over the country. This was dubbed by the media as the "Trial of the century."

However, when the case was brought to civil court, the jury found him guilty and awarded the Goldman family $30 million dollars. This judgment allowed the judge to garnish any future earnings from the O.J. Simpson estate, but the Goldman family could not access his retirement pension from the N.F.L.

By SauteePan — On Sep 05, 2010

Sunny27-Sometimes the defendant can be found not guilty in a criminal case and found guilty in a civil case.

The reason for this is that the burden of proof is different. For example, in the O.J. criminal case in which he was accused of killing his wife and his wife's friend, the jury found him not guilty. But in the civil case he was found guilty.

By Sunny27 — On Sep 05, 2010

The biggest difference between criminal defense law and civil defense law is that the standard of guilt is distinctly lower in a civil case.

In a civil case the defendant is found guilty if the preponderance of the evidence proves it. This can simply mean the defendant was more than 50% likely to have committed the offense.

While in a criminal case, the state has to prove that there is a 99% chance that this person committed the crime.

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