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The Difference between Criminal Law and Civil Law

Updated on March 4, 2014

The Difference between Criminal Law and Civil Law

There is no doubt law is a complex subject covering countless topics. We've all seen sensational criminal trials on TV or read about them in the newspaper, so we have gained some knowledge regarding criminal law. There is another branch of law, however, with which many people are not as familiar and that is civil law. At some point in your life, it may become necessary for you to deal with some form of civil law. Eo you know the differences between criminal and civil law?

What is Civil Law?

Civil law deals with the upholding of individual rights. The purpose of a civil law hearing is to determine if those rights were violated. In many cases, there has been no crime committed. If there are criminal charges involved, a separate court will deal with those. The person bringing the lawsuit is the claimant, or the plaintiff, and the person or group accused of wrongdoing is the defendant. The plaintiff must prove wrongdoing by a "preponderance of the evidence". A judge, rarely a jury, normally hears civil cases. The finding can be liable or not liable.

What is Criminal Law?

Criminal laws are designed to maintain law and order and to protect society as a whole. In criminal law, charges are brought by a government agency, such as the police or CPS. The government becomes the plaintiff, or the prosecution. When a criminal trial takes place, the purpose is to determine guilt or innocence. In this situation, the prosecution must prove guilt "beyond the shadow of a doubt". A jury nearly always hears a criminal case. The jury must reach a unanimous decision and the defendant can be found guilty or not guilty.

Difference in Punishments

There is a vast difference in the punishments meted out to people found guilty in a criminal law than the ones given to someone who is found liable in a civil case. If a person is guilty of committing a crime, they can receive a fine, a prison sentence, or in the most serious cases, the death sentence. Crimes are classified in two different categories, misdemeanors, which are lesser offenses, and felonies, the more serious crimes. The punishments given in each category reflect the gravity of the crime.

When someone is found liable in a civil case, they cannot be sent to jail. Execution is certainly never an option. The normal punishment is an order to pay restitution to the wronged party. They could also have to pay punitive damages if their actions were found to be of malicious intent, showed a willful disregard to others or gross negligence.

Obviously, being found guilty in a criminal court of law can have much more serious consequences than a finding of liable in civil court. If you find yourself facing either courtroom, though, it is advisable to retain a lawyer to help you understand the legal complexities involved in your case. Lawyers, not unlike doctors, often choose to specialize in a certain field. If there is an occasion where you need the services of a lawyer, it is best to choose one who concentrates on the branch of law where you need expertise.


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    • profile image

      Justis 3 years ago

      It's a pluarese to find someone who can think so clearly

    • profile image

      Monkey 3 years ago

      Damn, I wish I could think of sohnmtieg smart like that!

    • profile image

      Christiana 3 years ago

      Pefcert shot! Thanks for your post!

    • Julianne Burkett profile image

      Julianne 4 years ago from Dallas, TX

      Very informative. Thank you for sharing!

    • radiance02 profile image

      radiance02 7 years ago

      I have a very serious matter currently ongoing in the UK, and it would be useful "just for speculation purposes really" so as to how would the U.S civil court deal with such issues. Please would you visit my issue @

      and offer any comment.

      Thank you.

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      seemi 7 years ago

      in civil caeses both parties are private individual

      while in criminal cases one party is always state.

      in civil law object is to cumpensate the injuried party while in criminal law object is to punish the wrongdoer

    • profile image

      Jason Bower 8 years ago

      There is also a DVD out there that covers this topic at I have found it to be very very helpful when it came time to fight my case.