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What is the difference between civil law and criminal law?
The law can be confusing for the typical person who may be facing a legal situation for the first time. Even when legal issues have arisen in the past, many times the litigants do not really understand how a judge or the court arrived at a particular decision. Much of this confusion often stems from misunderstanding the type of case that is being processed.
There are effectively two types of legal cases: criminal and civil. Most people are familiar with criminal law and the penalties regularly associated with criminal activity. Civil law is usually where individuals are confused because the rules concerning civil law are very different to criminal prosecutions, including the level of scrutiny associated with the burden of proof and the requirements of legal professionals involved in the adjudication.
What is Criminal Law?
Criminal law is under the exclusive authority of the local, state or federal law enforcement system. Each state has a comprehensive set of criminal statutes that are used to prosecute individuals for their actions that are in violation of the state code.
All cases in a criminal law are brought by the particular prosecutor who has the duty of charging offenders based on the level of the criminal classification. Criminal charges are normally classified according to two general categories of misdemeanor and felony. Criminal charges can also result in incarceration penalties, and all criminal defendants will be required to have legal counsel in the event of this possibility.
All criminal cases do not allow for jail terms, but fines and fees are always possible outcomes as forms of financial punishment, including restitution in fraud or theft cases. Juries in a criminal trial are also made up of a larger number of jurors, and serious criminal law cases require being indicted by a grand jury.
What is Civil Law?
Civil law is effectively any type of legal case that does not involve the government prosecuting individuals for illegal acts, but civil cases can stem from criminal cases when there is an injured victim.
Civil law primarily deals with disagreements between individuals who are petitioning the court for damage recovery based on a claim. Personal injury cases are probably the most prevalent of civil cases, as well as divorce cases, and the range of legal filings that are classified as civil is extensive.
Civil law is similar to criminal law, in that the legal representative of the plaintiff effectively must "prosecute" the claim to the court by presenting documented evidence that an injury occurred to the plaintiff and that the injury was at least the indirect result of negligence on the part of the respondent litigant, which is the defendant in a criminal case.
All legal remedies in civil law cases are fiduciary or injunctive, and civil cases never result in incarceration unless a material case fact from a civil case is investigated and found to be criminal activity that leads to prosecution.
The Burden of Proof Difference
There are some distinct differences between how civil law cases and criminal law cases are finalized. The burden of proof in a criminal case is incumbent on the state prosecutor, while the burden of proof is incumbent on the plaintiff legal counsel in a civil matter. This is especially true in cases involving personal injury. Other legal cases such as divorce cases are also considered civil, but the case dynamic is different.
The standard of scrutiny in a civil law case is lower than the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," and many times a single piece of evidence can carry great weight at any point in the case presentation.
The standard of scrutiny in a civil case is "preponderance of the evidence" based on a totality of the circumstances. While the total amount of evidence that a plaintiff presents may be substantial, the rules of responsibility and negligence still apply in civil law cases and even one article of evidence can result in a respondent not having a duty of responsibility concerning a claim.