The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law: Part 2

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The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law: Part 2

In our previous Coolidge Law Firm blog post we began to discuss the difference between civil and criminal law by first defining criminal law and how it plays out in a courtroom. We mentioned that both civil and criminal law have been developed in order to deter crime and wrongdoing and to set standards of punishment for perpetrators and restitution for victims. In this post we’ll cover civil law in more detail, contrast civil and criminal law side by side, and give a few examples of each.

Civil Law Defined

One straightforward definition of civil law comes from the Legal Dictionary website which describes it as, “The body of law that governs private or civil rights, providing redress for wrongs by compensating the person or entity that has been wronged rather than punishing the wrongdoer.” Civil lawsuits then, are brought by the individual who was injured or wronged by another entity and is seeking compensation for their loss. Unlike criminal cases, in a civil case the burden of proof only needs to be strong enough that it would cause the judge or jury to take a certain side. Because of this reality, and the fact there is more room for negotiation in civil law, the majority of civil suits are settled outside the courtroom.

The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law

As we contrast civil and criminal law, a few key differences stand out:

  • Civil Law protects the private rights of citizens; Criminal Law defines public crimes and their punishments.
  • Civil Law deals with disputes between one entity and another (rules, regulations, and codes were not followed); Criminal Law deals with offenses against the public, society, or government (federal and/or state law was broken).
  • Civil Law commonly involves negligent conduct; Criminal Law is more serious in nature and frequently involves intent.
  • Civil Law aims to provide restitution or redress (often financial) for wrongs done; Criminal Law seeks to implement a punishment (fines, penalties, probation, prison time, even death) for a crime committed.
  • In Civil Law there is a plaintiff and a defendant; In Criminal Law, there is a prosecution and a defense.
  • In Civil Law a suit is filed by a private party (the plaintiff) against a defendant (individual, corporation, etc.); In Criminal Law, the government or state (the prosecution) initiates a case against a defendant.
  • In Civil Law, the plaintiff must only provide a preponderance of evidence (evidence that causes the judge or jury to lean to one side as opposed to the other); In Criminal Law, the prosecution must provide evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt.

Examples of Civil Law and Criminal Law

In order to offer more clarity, here are a few examples of civil vs. criminal law:

Civil Law includes but is not limited to: defamation, breach of contract, negligence resulting in injury or death, property damage, and custody disputes.

Criminal Law includes but is not limited to: homicide, assault, robbery, drunk driving, and possession of drugs.

Can a Case Be Both Civil and Criminal?

At times, a case can be tried in both civil and criminal court. The most prominent example of this was the OJ Simpson case. Simpson was acquitted of murder by a jury in criminal court, but was later sued by the victim’s family in civil court where he was found liable for the deaths of his wife and her friend. In his criminal case, the burden of proof was not strong enough to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There was, however, enough evidence to find Simpson liable for wrongful death, and a settlement was demanded in civil court.

A Defense You Can Trust

The difference between civil and criminal law is relatively stable from state-to-state, however, each state determines both civil law and criminal law uniquely, according to their own statutes. At Coolidge Law Firm in Chandler, AZ, we have over 25 years of experience in criminal law, and we know how to prepare the best defense for your case. Give us a call today if you or someone you love is charged with, or possibly facing, criminal charges. We’re tough, we’re thorough, and we care!


Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash (3/18/2021)