What is the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases?

Jacob Queen

Criminal and civil cases have a lot of differences, and those differences can vary depending on the country in question. The most fundamental difference between criminal and civil cases is the identity of the party acting as the plaintiff. In civil cases, plaintiffs are either regular people or businesses, while the government serves as the wronged party in criminal cases. Civil cases generally involve private issues between individuals or businesses, while criminal cases are ideally meant to help the whole society in some way. Due to the fundamental difference between cases brought by the government and cases brought by private interests, civil and criminal cases usually have entirely different rules governing them, and the penalties tend to be very different as well.

Violent acts, such as murder, fall under criminal law.
Violent acts, such as murder, fall under criminal law.

In most cases, it is much harder to prove a criminal case than a civil case. Criminal cases will involve a very high burden of proof for guilt, such as the requirement for proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the United States. Civil cases may be much easier to prove. For example, juries may be instructed to rule in favor of the plaintiff if they simply think his claims are "probably" correct.

Unlike civil cases, U.S. criminal cases must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Unlike civil cases, U.S. criminal cases must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Criminal cases and civil cases also tend to have very different penalties when there is a conviction. Most of the time, civil cases only require the person to compensate the plaintiff financially in some way. Criminal cases often require punishment through incarceration in prison along with fines and possible restrictions of freedom, such as probationary periods that could continue for years after the initial conviction. There are even some criminal cases that result in more severe penalties in certain countries, including death penalties and other unusual measures.

Overall, there is a tendency for societies to treat criminal and civil cases much differently in terms of the prevailing opinion. Civil cases are often seen as private disputes with little importance to the average person, while criminal cases are usually treated with great importance because of the issues involved and the attempt to protect the public. Despite this view, there are times when civil cases can involve issues that have a big effect on society or public safety, such as consumer lawsuits against companies that produce faulty products.

Some legal experts feel that the differences between criminal and civil cases shouldn’t exist, at least not to the extent that they currently do. These people often suggest that certain standards or approaches should be adopted between the two to make the legal system more uniform, fairer, and easier for people to understand.

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Discussion Comments

@Cageybird, I know what you mean about civil courts. I won a judgment against a dry cleaning store that destroyed some expensive clothes. The total award wasn't more than a few hundred dollars, but the store's owner refused to pay it. I finally told him I would go to the local newspaper and tell my story if he didn't honor the judgment. He paid me cash the next morning. I feel sorry for people who win civil lawsuits, but don't get justice without doing something drastic.

One important difference between civil and criminal cases is the punishment phase. There is a system in place for a convicted criminal to be punished immediately. When a judge imposes a sentence, the guilty party is immediately put back into custody and begins serving his or her sentence. The victims in a criminal case are almost certainly going to see justice done in a timely manner.

In many civil cases, however, there is no guarantee of enforcement. One party could be found liable for damages and be ordered to pay restitution, but there isn't always a method in place to make sure it happens. Getting a judgment in a civil court, especially one for small claims, is only part of the battle. Actually collecting the court-ordered compensation is another.

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