Criminal vs. Civil Law: how do they compare?

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There are two broad, distinct areas of the law. First, there is tort law. Tort law covers most civil suits except contract disputes. Then, there’s criminal law. So how do the two contrast to each other, and what differences should you be aware of?

What is Tort Law?

Tort law, as mentioned, covers the majority of civil lawsuits. Unless it’s a certain type of contractual lawsuit or dispute, every claim in a civil court is considered tort law.

The basis of tort law is to provide a legal means to deal with wrongful or negligent behaviors of others. In tort law, the remedy for wrongdoing is awarding compensation in the form of monetary damages.

Civil law covers disputes between individuals and organizations.

On the other hand, criminal law deals with the legal punishment of actions against the law.

In civil law, a party files a complaint. If you’re the one filing a complaint, you’re the plaintiff. The responding party is the defendant. The civil law process is referred to as litigation.

If you file a civil lawsuit, you’re saying the defendant failed to carry out a legal duty they owed you.

A civil suit can be brought in state or federal court.

Examples of civil law cases include bankruptcy, property damage and custody disputes. Personal injury cases are also civil.

If you hire an attorney to represent you in a civil case, their approach will be a lot different than it would be in a criminal case. An attorney has a lot more flexibility in coming to a resolution in a civil case.

In criminal legal cases, the defendant is at the mercy of the court.

What is a Criminal Case?

When you’re accused of a crime, you are usually indicted. An indictment is a formal accusation process used for serious offenses and felonies. The government is prosecuting a case on behalf of the people of the country. If someone is charged with a federal crime, the case is prosecuted through the United States Attorney’s Office.

A District Attorney, a state attorney’s office, prosecutes state crimes.

In a criminal case, a victim doesn’t bring it forward. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a particular victim in a criminal case, either.

If you’re determined by a court to have committed a crime, you’ll receive a sentence. The sentence could require you to pay a fine or restitution. You could receive jail time or have community supervision. Sometimes, you’ll have a combination.

Do They Intersect?

Criminal cases are viewed as acts against the government at any level. Civil cases are disputes between what are usually private parties. Some situations may lead to criminal charges and civil claims.

An example is an assault. If someone assaults another person, they may be sued for the intentional tort. They can also be arrested and criminally charged.

Another example is when someone is charged with homicide. Then, they may be sued for wrongful death. The wrongful death lawsuit usually comes after the criminal proceedings.

The Punishment

We talked about this a bit above, but one of the more significant differences between criminal and civil law is the penalty. If you’re someone charged with a crime and you lose your case, you may have a punishment of incarceration or probation.

If you lose a civil case, you don’t go to jail. Instead, you have to pay a financial penalty.

Civil lawsuits can also be settled outside of court. You might settle if you’re the defendant, and then you’d pay the accuser. They’d drop the suit in exchange for the payment.

What About Burden of Proof?

A big distinction between civil and criminal cases is the burden of proof.

The accuser in both types of legal cases has to meet a burden of proof. The burden of proof is the requirement that you prove the claims being made.

Criminal cases, because of the serious penalties, mean that a higher bar has to be met in terms of the burden of proof.

There’s a standard you may have heard that applies to criminal law—beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, the proof is lower.

The burden of proof follows either a standard of a preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing standards.

Finally, there are also differences in the statute of limitations for civil versus criminal law. Every state has its own laws, but for many severe crimes, there isn’t a statute of limitations. For legal cases it’s often two years that you have to file a claim.