What is the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Cases?

In the winding labyrinth of legal proceedings, cases can cover anything from ridiculous suits over jellybeans to heavy and sobering gauntlets with serial killers. Civil and criminal cases stand as opposite pillars within this realm, each holding unique characteristics and implications.

The overall processes and rules of these legal classifications differ significantly. Whether you’re wondering what form your case will take or want to understand your favorite legal drama better, we hope this post will guide you on the right track.

What Is a Civil Case?

Civil cases consume most of the court’s time and deal primarily with disputes between private parties. These cases are nearly always resolved through financial punishments called pecuniary penalties, and some are categorized as civil if the plaintiff’s goal is compensation.

Some of the most common types of civil cases include:

  • Contract Disputes: Cases involving one or more parties who cannot fulfill their end of the contract.
  • Torts: When one party claims the other harmed them. Tort cases may apply to bodily, property, or asset safety. Assault and battery are frequently seen forms of torts.
  • Complaints Against Government: Cases where the plaintiff asserts that a governmental policy or law harmed the citizens.
  • Property Disputes: Cases regarding real estate or property ownership. This commonly occurs due to illegal building on another’s property or damaging personal effects.

Generally, civil cases aim to reach a fair and acceptable outcome for all parties involved. This motivation means that most civil cases are settled outside of court.

civil vs criminal case

What Is a Criminal Case?

Crimes that severely break government laws or policies are criminal cases. It doesn’t matter if the behavior acted against an individual, public, state, or the country. Depending on the scope of the trial, the government is represented by the District Attorney, Attorney General, or the US Attorney.

Common examples of criminal cases include:

  • Violent Crimes: Involves physical harm or the threat of harm to an individual.
  • Drug Violations: Crimes related to buying, selling, carrying, or distributing illegal substances.
  • Public Intoxication and DWIs: Being visibly drunk in public spaces or driving in an altered state.
  • Fraud: The misrepresentation of facts to trick the victim into acting in a certain way, such as disclosing sensitive information or stealing money.

Criminal cases are only initiated by governmental bodies, and possible punishments include incarceration, fines, or community supervision. As the severity of outcomes increases in criminal cases, the mantra of “innocent until proven guilty” is heavily stressed.

Readers should understand that charges can be both civil and criminal. For example, a murderer can be charged with the criminal offense of intentional murder and the civil offense of wrongful death.

Similarities Between Civil and Criminal Cases

Civil and criminal cases are structured legal processes with similar skeletons despite their many differences. Each involves the presentation of evidence, questioning witnesses, and legal arguments made by both sides.

Both civil and criminal cases can also be appealed by at least one party. So, both processes are subject to further evaluation even after the court’s decision.

Additionally, both take steps, at varying levels, to prevent outside information from affecting the court’s ruling. This may be gag orders or screening jurors for potential biases against different races, religions, or socioeconomic groups.

civil vs criminal case

Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

The two case types serve different purposes in our legal system in the pursuit of justice. Civil cases are generally meant to repair harm, while criminal cases mete out punishments. The distinction leads to a substantial number of differences in the corresponding processes.

Right to an Attorney

We’ve all heard TV show cops read this section of their Miranda Rights. “If you cannot afford an attorney, then an attorney will be appointed for you.”

These rights are explained because the person is being arrested on criminal charges. Many people wrongly believe that the state will provide an attorney in every instance, but the courts only assign lawyers during criminal cases.

Parties who cannot afford legal services for civil cases must represent themselves or seek out pro-bono attorneys. The American Bar Associate urges lawyers to complete 50 hours of pro-bono work, but individual states can decide to change the requirements.

Duties of a Juror

Jurors are responsible for listening and processing the information explained in court and rendering a verdict at the trial’s end. Each individual goes through a screening process to ensure they don’t have any connections or biases that may sway their ability to be fair and impartial.

Despite having similar responsibilities, civil and criminal juries have different restrictions on their decision-making. The most significant distinction is in the issue of unanimity in the jury’s decision.

Both civil and criminal juries MUST reach a unanimous verdict in Federal Court. However, at the state level, civil courts only require a majority percentage to produce a judgment. The exact percentage varies between states, but roughly a third of states only require a 51 percent benchmark in at least some scenarios.

Burden of Proof

The prosecution faces a much higher standard for “Burden of Proof” in criminal cases than civil ones. Government attorneys must prove the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means no other reasonable explanation exists for the events surrounding a crime.

Civil claims significantly lower the bar for the burden of proof. These cases must meet the “Preponderance of the Evidence” standard, which means that the defendant is most likely guilty.

Criminal records can also factor in court and may lower the defendant’s chances in civil court under the preponderance standard. If you have an upcoming case, it’s wise to check your criminal record and see if anything could affect the decision.


Media facing court cases often face appeals because one party feels they’ve been inaccurately portrayed. However, many protections prevent the appeals process from draining too much of the court’s time.

Appeals are sometimes misconstrued as another trial, but it’s a method to get a higher court to review a lower court’s verdict. The process considers possible errors with already submitted witnesses and evidence. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant may offer new information during an appeal.

In contrast to civil cases, where both parties can request an appeal, only the defendant has the right to appeal in criminal cases. This rule prevents the possibility of double jeopardy, in which a person is tried multiple times for the same offense.

Get Help Understanding Legal Proceedings Whenever Necessary

Legal proceedings are confusing and often long. They go through many steps, and the court’s reasons may not always be readily apparent. Remember that civil cases are typically meant to recoup damages between two parties, but criminal cases aim to protect society from danger.

We hope this post has helped you differentiate civil and criminal cases and gives you a better understanding of what you see on the news. However, if you want to understand a case, having as much information as possible is vital. RecordsFinder.com helps locate criminal and judgment records to keep you informed.