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The Difference Between Criminal Law And Civil Law

The Difference between Criminal Law and Civil Law

There are two primary classifications of law; criminal law and civil law. While civil law regulates and settles disputes between conflicting parties, criminal law regulates crimes and/or wrongs done against the government. This article is dedicated to the difference between criminal law and civil law.

Differences between Criminal Law and Civil Law

We will study the differences between criminal law and civil law under various heads:

DefinitionCivil law manages and deals with disputes and conflicts between organizations and individuals or between an organization and an individual wherein compensation is awarded to the victim. Criminal law manages and deals with crime and punishing criminals through legal processes.

Purpose – The purpose of civil law is to settle disputes between organizations, individuals, or between the two. Compensation is awarded to the victim(s) by the court. The purpose of criminal law is to maintain and uphold the stability of society and the state by punishing rule breakers and offenders so as to deter them and others from committing crimes in the future.

Opinion of the jury – In nearly all civil cases, juries are not needed. Even if they are needed, no unanimous decision requires to be reached by them. However, laws vary across states and counties. Judges prevail upon the parties and ensure that reason and law win over passion. In a criminal case, juries will have to reach a verdict unanimously if an accused has to be convicted.

Who files the case – Civil cases are filed by private parties whereas the government files criminal cases. The party which is complaining is called the plaintiff or claimant and the party that is responding is called the defendant.

Decision – In civil cases, the defendant is either found liable to pay or not liable to pay and the judge decides the case depending on case hearings. In criminal cases, the defendant is convicted if found guilty. He or she is acquitted if not found guilty. The jury has to decide this unanimously.

Standard of proof – In civil cases, the standard of proof is legally termed as "preponderance of evidence." The claimant or plaintiff should produce evidence beyond the balance of probabilities. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is legally termed as "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Burden of proof – In civil cases, although it is up to the claimant or plaintiff to produce proof, in cases of Res Ipsa Loquitur which translates to "the thing speaks for itself," the burden of proof could transfer to the defendant. In criminal cases, the accused is "innocent until proven guilty" and the produced evidence must be "beyond any reasonable doubt." It is up to the defendant to prove the accused guilty.

Type of punishment – In civil cases, compensation (normally in the form of financial compensation) for damages or injuries is awarded to the claimant. The punishment could also be in the form of an injunction in nuisance. In criminal cases, a defendant found guilty is subject to either imprisonment (custodial punishment) or community service or fines (non-custodial punishment) or a combination of both. In very exceptional cases, death penalty is also served on a guilty defendant.

Appeals – In civil cases, the defendant or claimant can appeal a court's decision. In criminal cases, the prosecution cannot appeal a court's decision; only the defendant can appeal.

Commencement of proceedings – In civil cases, proceedings can be commenced by the prosecution/people/state by indictment or summons. In criminal cases, proceedings are commenced through representatives of the state, by the Attorney General, by the Prosecutor or by way of pleadings.

Examples – Civil case examples include disputes between landlord and tenants, child custody, divorce proceedings, personal injury, property disputes, etc. Criminal case examples include assault, theft, trafficking in prohibited or controlled substances, robbery, murder, etc.

Final Notes

William Geldart, in his book, Introduction to English Law defines the difference between criminal law and civil law compellingly as follows: "The difference between civil law and criminal law turns on the difference between two different objects which law seeks to pursue - redress or punishment. The object of civil law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution: the wrongdoer is not punished; he only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong he has done. The person who has suffered gets a definite benefit from the law, or at least he avoids a loss. On the other hand, in the case of crimes, the main object of the law is to punish the wrongdoer; to give him and others a strong inducement not to commit same or similar crimes, to reform him if possible and perhaps to satisfy the public sense that wrongdoing ought to meet with retribution."

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