What is the Difference Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case?

Criminal and civil cases differ in many ways. While both criminal and civil cases can arise from the same incident, generally everything from the subject of the case to the possible outcomes and even the way the parties are identified is different. Here is a quick overview of the key differences between criminal and civil cases.

Government vs. Private Party

Criminal cases are filed by the government in response to an alleged crime. When an individual is charged with breaking the law, the government will file charges against the individual in criminal court. A judge or a jury will then have the responsibility of deciding whether the individual is guilty and if so, what the punishment should be through the trial and sentencing process. 

Though the government may also be a party in a civil case, the matter is initiated by a private party against another private party, organization, or government. Civil cases arise from a conflict or injury involving the two (or more) parties. A breach of contract, claim for personal injury or property damage, or money disputes can be resolved through civil litigation.

Prosecutor vs. Petitioner

In a criminal case, the two parties are the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff is the government, who is represented by an attorney called the prosecutor. The defendant is the individual charged with the crime, who may be represented by a defense attorney. 

A civil case is initiated by a petitioner and the other party is known as the respondent. Both parties may be represented by legal counsel, but there is no prosecutor involved. 

Punishment vs. Payment

The end goal of a criminal case is punishment. While a guilty defendant may be required to pay retribution, fines, or other financial penalties, the outcome of a criminal case is greatly focused on punishing the lawbreakers. 

Damages are the focus of a civil case. The goal is to restore the injured party to the condition they were in before the injury or dispute. While civil cases often end with one party being ordered to pay another party, civil cases can also end with contracts being declared null and void, or parties being ordered to perform or stop performing certain activities. 

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt vs. Preponderance of the Evidence

One of the most significant differences between civil and criminal cases is the standard of proof. For a defendant to be found guilty in a criminal case, the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Even the slightest bit of uncertainty can prevent a guilty verdict. This is an extremely high standard of proof, as it should be because criminal cases can affect a person’s rights and basic freedoms.

Civil cases have a much lower standard of proof. There simply must be a preponderance of the evidence, or in other words, the outcome is based on what is the most likely truth.