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No one is immune from lawsuits. Some people you know may have had close brush-ins with the law, whether friends or family members. But the difference between spending lengthy jail time or costly punitive fees has to do with the nature of the offence.

Depending on the circumstances, an aggrieved party, whether a private individual or group, can file a case against you. But in certain instances, the police department or the state may even be the accuser. It is crucial to understand the difference between civil and criminal cases to know what might happen if you don’t get a reputable lawyer to defend your side.

If you’re part of the majority who still get confused between criminal vs civil cases, read on to be enlightened.

lawyer sitting at desk explaining the difference between civil and criminal case
  1. Who are involved

To understand the parties involved in either a criminal or civil case, one must be clear about what each case covers. Criminal law cases are concerned with upholding the community’s interest and safety and thus deal mainly with the misconduct or violence inflicted on its citizens. On the other hand, civil law deals with individual rights and responsibilities, including the dealings of government and private entities. (1) (2)

Criminal cases involve the state or government bringing charges and prosecuting accused individuals, otherwise known as the defendant. However, the state may also file a lawsuit against a corporation engaged in massive fraudulent practices. Government entities may also file civil claims against businesses for contract breach.

Criminal prosecution largely depends on how the legal system of a specific country works. Criminal law cases in Australia, for instance, registered more than 500,000 defendants from 2020 to 2021. About 97% of the people involved in these latest criminal cases were found guilty. (3)

Civil cases, meanwhile, typically involve private individuals and companies suing to claim damages and compensation. Thus, a person who claims that another private individual or entity violated an agreement or has caused them damages may consult a lawyer before filing a case.

In terms of legal representations, criminal defence lawyers uphold the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings and dispute evidence prepared by a court prosecutor. In contrast, civil law litigations involve private lawyers representing either the plaintiff or the defendant.

lawyer in consultation with client discussing the difference between civil and criminal cases

2. Nature of issues covered

Criminal law often involves violence and is usually broadly classified into misdemeanours or minor offences, felonies or serious offences, as with the United States legal system. But no matter the location, criminal cases often include murder, sexual assault, drunk driving, drug use, trade, and possession, domestic violence, to name a few. These cases may be filed before various courts depending on criminal jurisdiction.
Civil cases are also filed in courts or in special tribunals assigned to handle particular issues such as the family courts. Apart from family disputes, civil laws also cover torts and negligence claims, breach of contracts, collection claims, and similar cases. (1)

3. Purpose

Criminal cases are meant to punish the guilty party and reform them through correctional facilities or punitive costs. These harsh penalties are also imposed to discourage repeat offenders and prevent others from committing similar offences.

Conversely, civil cases aim to settle disputes in private dealings between and among individuals or organisations. It does not seek to punish but to restore the conditions a person or entity was in before the alleged breaches or damages by the defendant. If found liable, the court will order the losing party to pay compensatory damages to the other party. (1)

4. Standards of proof

Criminal and civil cases have different standards for accepting and assessing evidence to prove guilt or liability, respectively. Government prosecutors must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt before the Criminal Courts in criminal proceedings. This means that the prosecution must present evidence that will prove, without a doubt, that the accused indeed committed the crime. If the prosecution fails to do this, then the accused may be acquitted.  (4)

For civil cases, the private complainant must prove that the defendant was most likely liable for the damages and breach. If the judge or jury decides that the evidence favours the plaintiff more than the defendant, then the defendant is liable to pay compensation. (4)

5. Penalties

Another significant difference between civil vs criminal cases is the types of penalties imposed by the courts after establishing guilt or liability. As mentioned earlier, civil cases are centred on financial compensation. If a defendant loses the case, the judge or jury may order the party to pay the plaintiff. The judge may include reimbursements for economic losses such as medical and rehabilitation costs, as in the case of personal injuries, and emotional damage such as pain and suffering. The court may impose punitive damages in some instances, but a defendant won’t spend jail time. (4)

On the other hand, penalties differ for those found guilty of a crime. The seriousness of the offence is often the basis for penalties. In most countries, judgments of criminal cases would include hefty punitive costs, imprisonment, and community service. (1)

In conclusion

Most people are under the impression that all legal proceedings are the same. However, criminal cases differ from civil cases regarding the parties involved, how evidence is assessed, and the types of legal penalties imposed on those found guilty or liable.

Apart from clearing your confusion about civil and criminal litigations, we hope that this article has convinced you to stay out of trouble at all times. However, if you get entangled in any legal situation, contact a lawyer immediately to help you out.

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