In the U.S., the law is divided into various categories: employment, business, environmental, criminal, civil, and many others.

In this article, we’ll be looking at five key differences between criminal and civil law, with some examples of each.

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1.  Criminal Law and Civil Law Cover Different Areas of Law

Criminal law refers to behavior that is or could be seen as an offense against society, the public, or the state, though victims can be individuals.

Examples of criminal law cases include murder, theft, and assault.

Civil law refers to behavior that causes an injury to an individual or a private party such as a corporation.

Examples of civil law cases include libel, property damage, and negligence that results in personal injuries or death.

2.  Criminal Law and Civil Law Differ in the Way Cases Are Initiated

One way criminal and civil law differ is about who may bring charges.

Only the state or federal government can initiate a case in criminal cases.

In civil cases, a private party initiates the cases. For example, if you’re injured in an accident that isn’t your fault, you can file a lawsuit against the responsible party to gain compensation.

So, personal injury cases are covered by civil law. To pursue a lawsuit and gain compensation to cover medical costs and lost earnings, plaintiffs should contact a local personal injury lawyer to help them navigate legal complexities and pursue the compensation they’re entitled to.

Therefore, if you’re based in Pennsylvania, you should contact a law firm based in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Allentown, for instance.

3.  Criminal Law and Civil Law Differ in the Way the Outcome of the Cases Are Decided

Criminal cases are almost always determined by a jury in a court of law, whereas a judge typically decides the outcome of civil cases.

However, significantly civil law cases can involve juries.

4.  The Burden of Proof Differs in Criminal Law and Civil Law Cases

When criminal law and civil law cases go to court, the defendant or plaintiff must prove that he or she did or did not do the thing that he or she is accused of. That’s known as the burden of proof.

But the burden of proof differs depending on whether the case is criminal or civil law.

In civil law cases, the plaintiff must prove that the accused is liable; in criminal law cases, the accused defendant must prove his or her innocence.

So, under criminal law, the defendant is responsible for the burden of proof; under civil law, the burden of proof is the plaintiff’s responsibility.

5.  Penalties Are Different for Criminal Law and Civil Law Cases

Seeing as criminal cases involve serious crimes like murder and theft, as you would expect, the penalties are usually much greater than the penalties of civil law cases.

In criminal law cases, those who are found guilty are often imprisoned, but penalties can also include fines.

For penalties to be given in criminal law cases, the defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In civil cases, those who are found guilty are never imprisoned. Their penalties involve monetary awards instead. A plaintiff must establish the defendant’s liability according to the preponderance of the evidence.

However, some cases could constitute both a criminal and civil law charge.

One good example is the famous murder trial of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of the criminal charges of murdering his wife and a friend of hers but was later found liable for their killings in a civil suit, where the charge was “wrongful death.”


David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...

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