Civil law vs criminal law: what’s the difference? –



Approximately 400,000 civil lawsuits are filed in the United States each year. But these don’t include any of the many criminal cases the courts see each year. This is because civil law and criminal law are very different.

Did you know that in civil law the accused risks being “responsible”, while in criminal law the accused risks being “guilty”? And that’s just the beginning.

Understanding the differences between criminal and civil law is important so that you know the processes and the lawyer to look for if you need a lawyer.

Read on for this full, comparative breakdown of these two different types of law.

What is civil law?

Civil law concerns the private and civil rights of individuals. This means that when an individual’s rights are violated, then it is a civil law matter. In addition, if there are disputes between individuals, or individuals and organizations, then civil law is applied to award compensation to the victim.

Some examples of civil law include custody disputes, bankruptcy, libel, personal injury, breach of contract, and property damage. The Illinois Lemon Law, for example, deals with all of these lawsuits.

So what does civil law look like in practice? A plaintiff is a person who brings an action against another, the defendant, in court. Either party can be an individual, organization, business or corporation. The onus of finding proof of wrongdoing rests with the claimant.

The plaintiff and his civil lawyer will have to prove that it is probable that the defendant is responsible for the problem which caused the litigation (i.e. damage to property).

If the plaintiff succeeds in proving fault, the defendant is not considered guilty, but rather “liable”. This means that the defendant is legally bound to pay financial compensation to the plaintiff.

Civil suits are often resolved outside the courtroom. The parties involved will negotiate a fair settlement without taking the matter to a judge.

Essentially, there is a lot more flexibility when it comes to resolving civil cases and this is recognizable in the number of cases that actually end up in court – only around 10%.

What is criminal law?

There are many types of law, and criminal law is very different in many ways from civil law. First, criminal law defines criminal activity at the local, state, and federal levels. It encompasses the laws of crimes as well as the penalties for those crimes.

Criminal law deals with offenses committed by an individual against the state. This does not mean that the culprit literally attacked the state, but rather that they violated a criminal law established by the state and that is the offense.

Some examples of criminal law cases include homicide, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, assault and possession of a controlled substance.

In criminal law, the case is brought by the government, never by an individual. An individual can only report the crime, the government must bring the criminal charges to court.

Criminal activities are separated into two broad categories. Crimes are serious offenses punishable by more than one year in prison. The offenses are less serious with a possible sentence of one year or less in prison.

In criminal law cases, the onus is on the state to prove that the accused is guilty of a crime. In order for the accused to be convicted, there must be 99% evidence against him. In other words, “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Criminal law vs civil law

So what are the main differences between civil law and criminal law? Of course, there is the definition and the types of activity or litigation but there are some very important distinctions that are important to understand.


As mentioned briefly above, there is a difference in the type of sentence defendants are sentenced in civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, the defendant is “responsible”, but not “guilty”. In criminal cases, the accused is “guilty”.

Therefore, if proven guilty, an accused in a criminal case risks incarceration. On the other hand, defendants in civil law cases with proven liability do not risk jail, but instead will have to pay financial compensation to the plaintiff.

Burden of proof

The burden of proof determines which party is responsible for finding, compiling and presenting the evidence against the defendant. In civil law cases, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff and only 55% of proof of wrongdoing is needed to prove the responsibility of the defendant.

In criminal matters, however, the onus is on the prosecution and must prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lawyer mindset

The way lawyers approach civil and criminal matters is quite different. The litigation strategy, the rules of evidence, the burden of proof and the overall philosophy are different.

Negotiating a settlement in a civil lawsuit allows much more flexibility while criminal proceedings are limited and complicated. In criminal law, the lawyer and the defendant are at the mercy of the court.

Civil law vs criminal law: where do you fall?

It is important to understand the difference between civil law and criminal law so that you can seek the right legal counsel if you find yourself in trouble and at the mercy of the law. Using a civil law attorney to represent you in litigation can prevent your case from going to court and increase the likelihood of fair compensation.


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