Many people do not understand the difference between civil and criminal law, but numerous principles set the two terms apart, such as:


In civil law, a private individual, such as a person or a corporation, files 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 a civil case, the private rights of individuals, businesses and governments are in dispute. When the type of civil action involves an injury, it is called a tort, such as is the case with a personal injury lawsuit. 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 driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, burglary or rape.


A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney, and if he cannot afford one, the state or federal government must provide representation. In a civil case, the defendant is not given an attorney and must pay for one or he can choose to defend himself. In the case of an auto accident, if a civil defendant has insurance, his insurance carrier may have a duty to defend him, based upon the terms of the insurance contract.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof in a criminal court is beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that there could be no doubt in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant is guilty — there can still be doubt, but only that no reasonable doubt is possible, based on the evidence presented.

The burden of proof in a civil trial is the preponderance of the evidence, a much lesser burden than beyond reasonable doubt. Preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable. This difference in burden of proof exists because civil liability is considered less blameworthy and the punishments are less severe than in criminal law.

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.

Constitutional Protections

Defendants in criminal actions are afforded certain Constitutional protections that are not available to defendants in civil cases. These include protection against illegal searches and seizures, the right to remain silent, and freedom from double jeopardy.


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

What About Both?

Some offenses can actually become both civil and criminal matters. One famous example of this is the O.J. Simpson case, in which Mr. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in California criminal court and received no prison time. However, he was found liable in the wrongful death (civil) action and was ordered to pay compensatory damages to the victims’ families to compensate them for their losses, as well as punitive damages intended to punish Mr. Simpson for his conduct.

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