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A Closer Look at the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law

Sonia Nair Jun 30, 2019
Civil law can be defined as the law that governs disputes between private parties, while criminal law deals with crimes that are considered as offenses against the state. Here is a brief insight into the differences between these two major entities of law.
Some actions may give rise to both civil and criminal liability. For example, aggravated battery is a tort as well as a crime. While the victim can sue the defendant in a civil court and claim damages, the offender can be tried in a criminal court, and sentenced to imprisonment and fine.
Law can be broadly classified into civil and criminal categories. While civil law deals with laws related to torts, contracts, and property; criminal law is about crimes like kidnapping, assault, theft, murder, etc. When it comes to awareness about law, laymen often have a basic understanding about crimes rather than civil disputes.
The credit goes to the media coverage of criminal trials. Crimes are part of movies and television series too. Civil litigation does not garner such attention.
Both these branches of law differ in their basic goals and terminology. While civil law is aimed at solving disputes between individuals, organizations, or both; criminal law intends to maintain law and order in society by punishing criminals. In civil law, the aggrieved person is the plaintiff, who sues the defendant.
The court delivers a judgment holding the defendant liable or not liable to pay damages to the plaintiff. In case of criminal law, the state prosecutes the accused, who is believed to have committed the crime. The court delivers a sentence, according to which the accused can be held guilty or not guilty of committing the offense.
So, the basic difference between civil and criminal law is about what they deal with, who initiates the legal action, the remedy sought, the burden of proof, protections available for the defendants, and penalty. Let us take a look at these factors in detail.

Civil Law Vs. Criminal Law


► Civil law is defined as a body of rules that delineate private rights and remedies, and govern disputes between individuals in such areas as contracts, property, and family law.
► Criminal law is a body of rules and statutes that defines conduct prohibited by the government, because it threatens and harms public safety and welfare; and establishes punishment to be imposed for the commission of such acts.

Rights and Duties

► Civil law deals with private rights, and duties of individuals not to infringe the private rights of others.
The law defines such rights and duties, and governs disputes that arise from violation of private rights that exist between individuals, organizations, and the government. Such violations are common in contracts and torts.
► Criminal law deals with crimes, which are acts that are prohibited by the government as they threaten public safety and welfare. So, crimes like murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, etc., are classified as acts against the state. So, crimes are considered as wrongful acts against the state and society in whole.

Parties to the Case

► If somebody violates the private right of another person, the latter may sue the former. The person whose right has been violated initiates the case and becomes the plaintiff. The person against whom the case is being filed is called the defendant (usually the person who infringes the plaintiff's right). Both parties are represented by private attorneys.
► In case of a crime, the state initiates action against the wrongdoer. This happens when a person violates a federal or state criminal statute. So the state is the plaintiff, and the wrongdoer becomes the accused (defendant). The government is represented by the prosecutor, and the defendant has to appoint a private attorney or get a public defender.

Role of the Victim

► Usually, plaintiffs in civil cases are often referred to as aggrieved parties, and not victims. In its strict sense, the word victim means a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.
In civil litigation, plaintiffs can be victims in case of torts like assault, battery, etc. Being the plaintiff, the victim has to prove the case against the defendant.
► In crimes, victims have no role in conducting the case, and he/she remains a key witness. It is the state that conducts the case against the defendant. However, there are certain crimes that lack immediate victims. In case of crimes like rape or kidnapping, there will be an immediate victim. Crimes like drug trafficking may not have such a victim.

Standard of Proof

► In civil cases, the standard of proof is 'preponderance of evidence'. The plaintiff must produce enough evidence to prove his case beyond the balance of probabilities. So, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. The defendant can rebut the evidence produced by the plaintiff. In that case, he has to prove the same.
► In criminal litigation, the state has to prove the charges against the accused. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor, who has to prove that the defendant has committed the crime 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.
The defendant is assumed to be innocent, till the state proves otherwise. If the defendant comes up with defenses like mental imbalance or insanity, he has to prove the same.


► If the case against the defendant in a civil litigation is proved, he can be held liable for the losses suffered by the plaintiff. In that case, the defendant has to pay compensation to the plaintiff.
Though monetary relief in the form of damages is more common, the court may also provide specific relief like injunction or specific performance of a contract. Punitive damages is not awarded in some cases, especially torts.
► It is a common fact that punishment is more severe in criminal litigation. If the accused is found guilty, he/she can be punished with imprisonment and fine. The accused can be sentenced to death penalty in case of serious and heinous crimes. Compensation may also be awarded in some cases. Community order, rehabilitation, or probation are not uncommon.
If convicted, the accused becomes a criminal, who may have to bear civil disabilities and loss of liberty. If convicted for a felony, the repercussions can be long-lasting. He/she may be prohibited from possessing firearm, voting, sitting on a jury, or holding a professional license.

Constitutional Protections

According to the U.S. Constitution, defendants in criminal cases are eligible for certain protections. They include right to avoid self-incrimination, double jeopardy, right to speedy trial, no ex post facto law, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, right to the assistance of counsel, prohibition against illegal searches and seizures, etc.
Such protections are not available under criminal law. Unlike civil litigation, right to jury trial is easily available in criminal cases.
In short, civil and criminal law are two distinct categories of law. While the Civil Procedure Code is the main statute of civil law, the Criminal Procedure Code governs criminal law. Likewise, civil and criminal courts and the procedures followed in these courts are also different.
Mentioned here are some of the basic differences between these broad categories of law. The statutes, procedures, etc., may vary with different jurisdictions.