Civil Law vs Criminal Law: What’s the Difference?

Around 400,000 civil lawsuits are filed every year in the United States. But these don’t include any of the plentiful criminal cases that the courts see annually. That’s because civil law vs. criminal law is very different.

Did you know that in civil law the defendant risks being ‘liable’, whereas in criminal law the defendant risks being ‘guilty’? And that’s just the beginning.

It’s important to understand the differences between criminal and civil law so that you know the processes and the counsel to seek should you find yourself in need of an attorney.

Keep reading for this comprehensive and comparative breakdown of these two different types of law.

What Is Civil Law?

Civil law concerns the private and civil rights of individuals. What this means is that when an individual’s rights are violated, then it is a civil law case. Additionally, if there are disputes between individuals, or individuals and organizations, then civil law is applied to award compensation to the victim.

Some civil law examples include custody disputes, bankruptcy, defamation, personal injury, breach of contract, and property damage. The Illinois lemon law, for instance, deals with all such lawsuits.

So what does civil law look like in practice? A plaintiff is someone who brings a case against another, the defendant, in court. Either party could be an individual, an organization, a company, or a corporation. The responsibility of finding proof of wrongdoing falls on the plaintiff.

The plaintiff and their civil law attorney will need to prove that it is likely that the defendant is responsible for the problem that caused the dispute (ie, damaging property).

If the plaintiff is successful in proving the fault, the defendant is not considered guilty, but rather, ‘liable’. This means the defendant is legally obliged to pay financial compensation to the plaintiff.

Civil lawsuits are often settled outside of the courtroom. The involved parties will negotiate a fair settlement without bringing the case in front of a judge.

Essentially, there is a lot more flexibility when it comes to resolving civil cases and this is recognizable in the number of cases that actually end up in court — only about 10%.

What Is Criminal Law?

There are many different types of law and criminal law is substantially different in many ways from civil law. First of all, criminal law defines criminal activities at a local, state, and federal level. It encompasses the laws of crimes as well as the punishments for those crimes.

Criminal law deals with an individual’s offenses against the state. This does not mean that the guilty party literally attacked the state, but rather that they broke a criminal law established by the state and this is the offense.

Some examples of criminal law cases include homicide, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, assault, and possession of a controlled substance.

In criminal law, the case is filed by the government, never an individual. An individual can only report the crime, the government needs to file the criminal charges in court.

Criminal activities are separated into two major categories. Felonies are serious crimes with a risk of more than one year in prison. Misdemeanors are less serious with a possible sentence of one year or less incarceration.

In criminal law cases, it is up to the state to prove that the defendant is guilty of a crime. In order for the defendant to be proven to be guilty, there needs to be 99% proof against them. In other words, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’

Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

So, what are the main differences between civil and criminal law? Of course, there is the definition and the types of activities or disputes but there are some very important distinctions that are important to understand.


As mentioned briefly above, there is a difference in the type of punishment that defendants are sentenced to in civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, the defendant is ‘liable’, but not ‘guilty’. In criminal cases, the defendant is ‘guilty’.

Therefore, if proven guilty, a defendant in a criminal case faces incarceration. On the other hand, defendants in civil law cases that are proven to be liable don’t face time in prison but will need to pay financial compensation to the plaintiff instead.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof determines which party is responsible for finding, compiling, and putting forth the evidence against the defendant. In civil law cases, the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff and only 55% of proof of wrongdoing is necessary to prove the liability of the defendant.

On the other hand, in criminal cases, it falls on the state prosecution and they need to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Attorney Mindset

How attorneys approach civil and criminal cases is quite different. The litigation strategy, rules of evidence, the burden of proof, and overall philosophy are different.

Negotiating a settlement in a civil suit allows much more flexibility whereas criminal lawsuits are limited and complicated. In criminal law, the attorney and defendant are at the mercy of the court.

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: Where Do You Fall?

It’s important to understand the difference between civil law vs. criminal law so that you can seek the correct legal counsel if you find yourself in trouble and at the mercy of the law. Seeking out a civil law attorney to represent you in disputes can keep your case out of court and increase the likelihood of fair compensation.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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