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What is Difference Between Civil vs Criminal Case: Meaning and Definition

Posted on in CrimeMay 20, 2024

Most people are aware that there are different types ofcivil vs criminal cases. The court system is designed to punish criminal actions and address or mediate disagreements between citizens and organizations.

These two branches of law involve distinct procedures, legal terminology, and consequences. Knowing these differences is crucial to understanding different parties' decisions and effectively following a case.

Defining Civil Case

A  civil caseis a legal dispute between individuals, organizations, or other entities. A civil case's primary purpose isn't to punish someone for breaking the law but to remedy the victim for harm or injury caused.

Some common examples of civil law cases include the following:

  • Contract Disagreements
  • Personal Injury Claims
  • Family Law and Custodianship Hearings
  • Property Disputes

 What is Criminal Case

In contrast, a criminal case is initiated by the government against an individual or entity accused of a crime. These proceedings generally imply harsher punishments that threaten the defendant's liberty or life rather than ending with a compensatory ruling.

Criminal cases have a slightly different structure from civil ones. The case starts with an indictment rather than a complaint. The defendant is arrested and read their alleged crimes in an arraignment before having the chance to plead guilty. After this process, the general steps of a criminal case don't stray too far from civil cases.

Frequently tried criminal offenses include the following:

  • Assault and Battery
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Arson
  • Murder

Reading these explanations, you'll notice that there are some gray areas. What happens if someone sues their attempted murderer? The victim has a right to sue for compensatory damages they incurred from medical bills and trauma.

In these cases, the charges are pursued concurrently. The judge may pass sentences regarding both, resulting in compensatory punishments on top of punitive ones like imprisonment. It's also possible to be guilty of the criminal charge but not accountable for the civil charge, or vice versa.

 Criminal Case

Legal standards differ significantly between civil and criminal cases. In a civil case, the primary focus is on resolving disputes between individuals or entities, often involving matters like contracts, property, or personal injury. Here, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff, who must demonstrate their case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that their claims are true. Conversely, criminal cases involve offenses against society and are prosecuted by the government. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, who must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, ensuring a higher standard of evidence to safeguard against wrongful convictions. This crucial distinction underscores the contrasting objectives and processes of civil vs criminal cases of civil vs criminal cases. 

Parties' Responsibilities in Criminal and Civil Cases

There are similar groups involved in civil and criminal cases. However, what they're called and the roles they fill can vary drastically. Below is a breakdown of each party's responsibilities during civil and criminal cases.

The Judge

Contrary to media portrayals, judges aren't intended to decide who's right or wrong. Instead, they act as impartial overseers and ensure all processes are fulfilled according to the law. The judge has the final word on matters in their courtroom and wields great authority.

However, there are times when the judge also adopts the jury's role.  Bench trialsare cases where each party waives their right to "trial by jury," and the judge decides the verdict.

Bench trials are the default for civil trials in most states.  Plaintiffs and defendantsmust specifically request a jury trial and pay the associated fees. Criminal trials are the opposite, requiring parties to expressly waive the right.

The Jury

All citizens have a right to a  jury trial. The jury is selected from a pool of randomly selected citizens within the state. Potential jurors are asked questions regarding the case to check if they hold any biases or ideologies that would impact their objectivity. This selection method is called voir dire.

The jury's job is to consider the presented evidence and testimonies to decide who is right. Once all the arguments are complete, they'll retreat to a secluded room and deliberate until they reach a verdict.

The most substantial difference between civil and criminal juries is their legal standards. Criminal juries adhere to the famous adage "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." They must reach a unanimous "guilty" or "not guilty" consensus. If they do not, the trial is repeated with a new set of jurors.

However, civil cases work on a standard of evidence called the "preponderance of evidence”. This standard only requires the jury to decide that one side is more likely to be correct. Some states only require greater than a majority consensus, while others demand close to unanimous votes.

Additionally, some jurisdictions have separate requirements for the number of jurors in criminal and civil cases. Civil juries, in most of these situations, are smaller than their criminal counterparts.

The Plaintiff

The plaintiff is the party that brings the issue to court. In civil cases, they are the ones that are suing the other party for some complaint. Plaintiffs submit a pleading to the court, including the allegations, arguments, and evidence they've readied.

The burden of proof lies with the plaintiff in both civil and criminal cases. They are responsible for convincing the jury that what they say is true.

Civil trial plaintiffs are usually individuals, businesses, or organizations. However, in criminal cases, the plaintiff is "The People". This is because people who break the law endanger society's stability and safety. The government sends a prosecutor from the Attorney's Office to represent the plaintiff.

The Defendant

The defendant is the party accused of a crime or sued for a civil grievance. During criminal trials, the defendant has a right to an attorney. The government must provide one from the Attorney's Office if they cannot afford one.

This right does not apply to civil cases. Civil defendants procure representation regardless of financial status or represent themselves (pro se.) Notably, the American Bar Association requires attorneys to fulfill a minimum quota of pro bono hours.

Another weakness plaguing defendants in  civil court casesis the lack of presumed innocence. This mantra refers to the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Because jurors don't have to be sure of the defendant's guilt, civil plaintiffs can win by proving that they are "more likely to be right”.

Consequences in Civil and Criminal Cases

In civil cases, consequences may include compensatory or punitive monetary damages, court-ordered injunctions, or negotiated settlements. These outcomes aim to restore the harmed party to a position they would have occupied without the wrongdoing.

Consequences in Civil and Criminal Cases

The verdict in a civil case may seriously alter the defendant's lifestyle. However, the intention isn't to damage their life and freedoms like criminal penalties.

Criminal cases impose punitive consequences such as probation, community service, imprisonment, or even death. Unfortunately, criminal cases don’t seek to compensate victims. These punishments are designed to deter crime and protect society from the criminal's influence.

Refusing to follow a court order will likely incur charges of  civil contemptand thrust the defendant back into the courtroom.

Modern discussions are closely related to the benefits and implementation of empathetic and ethical sentencing practices. Concerns are pointed at the damage caused by practices like minimum sentencing, mass incarceration, and lack of reform programs.

Grasping the differences between civil and criminal cases is imperative for all citizens. It provides insight into why some people receive seemingly light punishments. It's likely because the case type doesn't align with the punishment you believe is appropriate.

Civil cases focus on resolving mostly non-criminal disputes and seeking compensation, while criminal cases aim to punish offenders for breaking the law. The distinctions in each party's role and the legal standards allow each system to service society's wide range of problems

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