The Difference between Criminal Law & Civil Law

scales of justice and gavel

With all of the prominent criminal trials in the news and the countless crime dramas on television, it's not surprising that many people's legal knowledge is strictly limited to the realm of criminal law. Some may not be aware that another category of law exists in addition to criminal law: civil law.

Criminal law involves acts of intentional harm to individuals but can also be considered offenses against us all. The purpose of criminal law is to prevent harm to society. Civil law deals with disputes between private parties, or negligent (unintentional) acts that cause harm to others. Before the existence of civil law, individuals or groups who disagreed may have resorted to violence or unfair tactics to solve disagreements. Civil law is modern society's fair and violence-free way to settle disputes that occur in everyday life.

A few more notable differences separate criminal law from civil law:

Difference #1: Who is "Suing" Whom?

Since criminal acts are considered to be offenses against society as a whole, in criminal law, the government is always the party that "sues" (takes legal action against) the individual charged with a crime. In a criminal case, the side of the government is deemed the prosecution, while the person accused of a crime is the defendant.

Civil law involves disputes between private parties. In this area of the law, a private party, such as a company or an individual, files a lawsuit or "sues" another private party. The party that initially filed the litigation then becomes the plaintiff, and the party against whom they are taking legal action becomes the defendant.

Difference #2: The "Punishment"

One of the biggest differences between civil and criminal law is the concept of "punishment." If a defendant is found guilty of criminal conduct, the court then prescribes an adequate punishment. The guilty defendant's punishment can entail incarceration in a jail or prison, and/or a fine paid to the government.

In civil law, a losing defendant will not go to jail. Typically, if a defendant is found to be negligent (at fault) in a civil case, they must financially reimburse the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant's careless behavior.

Difference #3: Who Pays the "Bill?"

In criminal law, a guilty defendant must use his or her personal assets to pay any court costs, attorney's fees, or fines to the government. It is not possible for a defendant to purchase insurance to pay for his/her criminal acts.

In a civil court, if a defendant is ordered to pay damages, they generally do not have to pay this amount out of their own pocket. Individuals and companies pay for insurance each month so that in the event of a civil lawsuit, their insurance company will pay for damages and attorney's fees. This insurance coverage is a standard part of most homeowner's insurance policies, car insurance, and insurance for businesses.

Although criminal law cases tend to be attention-grabbing and more commonplace in the media, both criminal and civil law exist to ensure that all people act in a fair and just manner or suffer certain consequences.

Sources: “Differences between Civil and Criminal Law in the USA.” June 6, 2014.
“Criminal and Civil Law.” June 6, 2014.