Legal Basics: The Major Differences Between Civil and Criminal Law


In 2017, there were 277,010 civil court cases filed in the United States. However, that doesn’t cover every court case for the entire year. Why?

There is a big difference between civil court cases (like the ones included in the above statistics) and criminal court cases. If you believe that you may have a case on your hands, you need to know the difference, as this will affect how you proceed and who you hire.

So, what is the difference between civil and criminal law?

Read on to find out everything you need to know and where to turn for help.

Civil and Criminal Law: The Basics

Civil law is loosely defined as the law dictating civil and/or private rights. Criminal law, on the other hand, is defined as the law of crimes and the punishment received when those crimes are committed.

One way to consider these differences is to look at who was wronged and how. Civil cases are between two individuals or entities and brought on by the person who was wronged. Criminal cases are between an individual or entity and the government because even if the harm was wrought against a single person, the crime committed was against the government’s laws.

Examples of Civil and Criminal Cases

To make this distinction more clear, let’s take a look at some examples of civil and criminal cases.

One example of a civil case is when a person files a personal injury claim against and a business after a slip and fall accident occurred on the business’s property. When filing something like a personal injury claim, you typically want to work with a lawyer who specializes in personal injury law; see more here about how this works.

An example of a criminal case would occur in the instance of assault. If you were the victim in this example, your role would involve reporting the assault to the police, answering questions, and appearing on the witness stand. However, the government would bring in a prosecutor that would be responsible for proving the defendant’s guilt, rather than you finding your own lawyer.

Conduct at Issue in Civil vs. Criminal Law

The conduct at issue refers to the defendant’s actions or behaviors that led to the civil or criminal law. As you can probably surmise, the conduct at issue in a civil case is typically not as severe or serious as the conduct at issue in a criminal case.

When dealing with civil law, you’re usually looking at something akin to neglect. The defendant failed to place wet floor signs in the area of their business that had just been mopped, for example.

When dealing with criminal law, you’re looking at various degrees of intent. An example would be the defendant stating their intent to assault the victim, seeking them out, and following through with something they’d already planned on doing. Intent is one of the key factors in criminal law because it determines the severity of the crime and therefore affects the appropriate punishment.

Differences in Punishment Between Civil and Criminal Law

Because the acts in question are so different, the resulting punishment between civil law and criminal law is very different, as well.

A civil case does not result in disenfranchisement, incarceration, or probation. Instead, it tends to push for a different kind of retribution involving an exchange of money or a change in behavior. Civil cases are more likely to reach a settlement outside of the courtroom because the stakes are not as high and the burden of proof is not as dire.

A criminal case, on the other hand, has serious implications when it comes to punishment. If the defendant in question is to lose their criminal case, they are going to see some form of jail time, incarceration, or probation. Criminal cases take longer and involve more people (including a judge and jury) than most civil cases.

Burden of Proof in Civil and Criminal Law

The burden of proof references what it takes for a party to win their case and whose responsibility it is to provide that proof. In other words, this is how you’re going to back up the accusation you’ve made against the defendant.

In civil cases, you are relying on what is sometimes called the preponderance of evidence as well as clear, convincing standards. In other words, there’s more evidence that your accusation is correct than that it isn’t and that evidence is reasonable.

In criminal cases, the evidence must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed. In other words, a prosecutor can’t come to the table with more evidence than the defendant and expect to win.

In the event that a civil case does go to court, the judge and jury must only determine that more than 50% of the evidence supports the plaintiff’s case. A criminal case, on the other hand, will always be conducted in front of a judge and jury. Once again, because the stakes are higher, the judge and jury must determine in a criminal case that at least 99% of the evidence goes against the defendant.

Heading to Court? Know the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law

If you believe that have you have been harmed or wronged in some way, you’re probably wondering what legal action you can take. In order to determine the answer, you’ll need to know the difference between civil and criminal law and what your case falls under. From there, you can determine if it’s time to hire an attorney or call the police.

Being a mom means needing answers to all of life’s questions. Whether you need potty training tips or legal tips, we’ve got you covered. Check out more of our posts and find out how we can make your life as a mom a little easier.

About Author

LaDonna Dennis

LaDonna Dennis is the founder and creator of Mom Blog Society. She wears many hats. She is a Homemaker*Blogger*Crafter*Reader*Pinner*Friend*Animal Lover* Former writer of Frost Illustrated and, Cancer...SURVIVOR! LaDonna is happily married to the love of her life, the mother of 3 grown children and "Grams" to 3 grandchildren. She adores animals and has four furbabies: Makia ( a German Shepherd, whose mission in life is to be her attached to her hip) and Hachie, (an OCD Alaskan Malamute, and Akia (An Alaskan Malamute) who is just sweet as can be. And Sassy, a four-month-old German Shepherd who has quickly stolen her heart and become the most precious fur baby of all times. Aside from the humans in her life, LaDonna's fur babies are her world.

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3 years ago

Importantly, because a single wrongful act may constitute both a public offense and a private injury, it may give rise to both criminal and civil charges.