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Criminal vs. Civil Cases – What’s the Difference?

“It’s not a criminal case; it’s civil…” What does that mean? It’s not obvious to those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the legal system. However, several differences separate and distinguish the two. We will explain them and clarify any confusion.

The difference is quite clear: criminal law is the system of law designed and enacted specifically to punish those who committed a criminal act against a state or against another individual. In contrast, civil law is a broad, blanket term for any non-criminal law enacted to cover private relations between community members without a connection to criminal activity or affairs.

While the basic definition of civil law is relatively broad, the system is further broken down into more specific categories, that are detailed below.

Categories of Civil Law

Civil law is separated into several categories because the different areas it covers differ significantly in terms of legal practice and law. When seeking an attorney in connection with a civil matter, it is best to find someone who specializes in the area you are dealing with, inspite of some areas of overlap.

· Contract Law: Contract law is a specialized area of law that considers the intricacies written into formal legal agreements between people, businesses, and other groups. Often, this involves the exchange of money, services, goods, or property, and people are often taken to court under “breach of contract” charges, meaning they did not follow the agreement as written and should, therefore, be held accountable.

· Property Law: Property law considers the many complex forms of ownership that can occur in connection with personal and real property, or the land and assets permanently fixed to that land, e.g., structures, or bodies of water. Property law aims to determine ownership, and/or its transfer, as well as deciding how individuals, businesses, or governments may use certain properties.

· Family Law: Perhaps the most well-known area of civil law, family law specializes in matters relating to family relationships, including divorce and child custody.

· Tort Law: Tort law typically addresses wrongdoings against individuals and seeks appropriate relief, often through monetary damages awarded as compensation. Possibly the most common example of a case considered part of tort law is that of civil negligence.

Civil and Criminal Law: Who Can Bring Charges?

Aside from the types of cases seen in civil versus criminal law, another way they differ is in who can file the charges associated with the case. Only the state can bring a charge against an individual in criminal cases, as it will be considered a crime against the state. However, when a

civil case is brought, it is a dispute between two parties. A civil suit only begins when one of the individuals involved files a complaint.

Burden of Proof

Another significant variation between criminal versus civil cases is how a case is won or on whom lies the burden of proof. In criminal trials, the accused must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” for the charges to stick, thus setting the bar for the standard of proof that is necessary to reach by the prosecutor.

Alternatively, in a civil case, there is a significantly lower standard of proof, based on the “preponderance of evidence.” This fancy term means the burden of proof is met when the party with that burden convinces the judge that there is greater than a 50% chance that the claim is true. It does not need to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as in criminal cases.


Penalties between criminal and civil cases are quite different, particularly concerning felony criminal crimes. Typically, criminal case penalties cover a wide range of severities, depending on the level of the charge. For felonies, the punishment may be any combination of one or more of the following: imprisonment, probation, or a fine paid to the government.

When exploring punishments for civil court cases, the punishment is typically monetary and proclaimed by a court order indicating the amount one party is required to pay to the other as compensation.


As indicated earlier, civil and criminal cases are quite different. However, it is important to remember that the two can overlap. For example, some cases may be brought to civil and criminal court, depending on the circumstances. Because of this, it is important to be advised by an experienced attorney who can help you determine the exact type of case you have and how best to deal with it.

Don’t hesitate to contact our office to speak with one of our expert attorneys today if you find yourself or someone that you know, facing civil, criminal, or dual charges.