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Maureen May
Maureen May
Attorney • (410) 321-6000

Civil vs. Criminal Law: What’s the Difference?

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Although many people do not understand the difference between civil and criminal law, there are numerous principles which distinguish one from the other, including:

Parties

In civil law, a private individual, such as a person or a corporation, brings the lawsuit and is known as the plaintiff. In criminal law, the government always files the complaint, and is referred to as the prosecution. In both types of matters, the person or entity defending the lawsuit is known as the defendant.

Disputes

In a civil case, the private rights of individuals, businesses, and governments are in dispute. In a criminal matter, an individual is prosecuted by the government for committing an act that is against the laws of the state or society as a whole, such as burglary, or rape.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof in a criminal court is beyond a reasonable doubt. This means there could be no doubt in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant is guilty, based on the evidence presented. The burden of proof in a civil trial is the preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.

Jury Trial

Both civil and criminal defendants are entitled to a jury trial; however, the opinion of a jury may or may not have to be unanimous in a civil case, depending upon the laws of a particular state, but in the criminal justice system, the jury must agree unanimously before a defendant can be convicted of a crime.

Penalties

A defendant losing a civil suit compensates the plaintiff monetarily for the damages he has caused, and no jail time is involved. But if a defendant is convicted in criminal court, the punishment may be jail time or imprisonment, a fine paid to the government, or in extreme cases, execution.