What Is the Difference Between Criminal Law and Civil Law?
Many people are familiar with criminal law because of the media coverage surrounding infamous cases, but people are less knowledgeable about civil law, or tort law. Typically, unless a person is an attorney or personally involved in the court case, the differences between civil or criminal law can be obtuse. There are several distinctions between civil and criminal law, including the type of crime, who files the lawsuit, punishments and the burden of proof. Basically, criminal law is for violations of statutory crime and punishment, and civil law deals with non-criminal disagreements.
Criminal law usually involves distinctly illegal behavior, and civil law involves disagreements when no law has been broken. Criminal cases usually consist of robbery, murder, battery or assault crimes. Civil cases typically encompass disputes between property owners and tenants, divorces, contract disagreements, real property issues and intellectual property disputes. In criminal law, the government always files the litigation or lawsuit. In civil law, the plaintiff files the lawsuit and usually is a private party such as a person or corporation.
Some attorneys and lawmakers believe that the notion of punishment is the main difference between civil law and criminal law. Punishment in criminal law is very different, because the defendant can be punished by incarceration, fines or even execution. In the United States, statutory crimes are divided into two main categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors usually have a maximum sentence of a one-year incarceration, and felonies usually have a minimum of a one-year incarceration.
In civil law, the "loser" of the case typically has to reimburse the other party financial for losses or other damages. There also can be punitive damages awarded in civil law, which consist of making the defendant an example to deter similar future behavior. These types of damages are possible when the defendant has been proven to have a malicious intent, gross negligence or a willful disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.
The burden of proof also differs greatly between civil law and criminal law. In civil law, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff at first but sometimes can shift to the defendant. Also, if the judge or jury believes that the evidence favors the plaintiff with at least a 50 probability, the plaintiff wins the case. This is very different from criminal cases, which require the judges or juries to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt — essentially 98 or 99 percent sure — that the defendants are guilty. In criminal law, the burden of proof rests solely on the prosecutor and typically does not switch to the defendant at any point in the litigation.