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

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In the United States, not all court cases are created equal – and that’s a good thing! We wouldn’t want a patient suing a doctor for malpractice to be subjected to the same processes and procedures as an alleged serial killer. The law can be thought of as having two sides: civil and criminal. While KJC is primarily a personal injury practice, we actually have experience on both ends of this spectrum. Today, we wanted to take a closer look at what distinguishes civil and criminal litigation.

Who’s Involved

Civil law deals with relationships between people. In civil court, a person or entity sues (files a lawsuit) against another person or entity to resolve a dispute between them. Any private citizen can file a complaint that might lead to a lawsuit, though it’s advisable to hire an attorney to assist with the complexities of the justice system.

Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with offenses against the public, society, or the state, even if the initial offense was against an individual (we’ll touch on this again later). These types of cases can only be filed by a lawyer for the government, known as a prosecutor, county attorney, state attorney, and district attorney (D.A.).      

Types of Cases

Civil law covers a broad range of cases that can be broken down into four categories:

  • Contract law deals with agreements between people, businesses, and other entities related to the exchange of money, goods, property, and/or services.
  • Family law governs the legal structure of family relationships, including divorce, child custody, adoption, and more.
  • Property law deals with real estate and property disputes, including those between tenants and landlords.
  • Tort law, more commonly known as personal injury law, aims to protect people from harm due to negligence and correct wrongs by providing restitution.

Most attorneys that handle civil litigation choose to specialize in one of these types of cases. 

On the criminal side, offenses are called “charges” and usually consist of one or both types of the following crimes:

  • A felony is a crime for which the punishment in federal law may be incarceration for more than one year up to and including death. In Massachusetts, this includes crimes that carry a penalty of any length of time in state prison, like assault, stalking, larceny (theft), child abandonment, and homicide.
  • A misdemeanor is a crime that’s considered less serious than a felony. Unlike many other states, Massachusetts does not group misdemeanors into different classes for purposes of sentencing. 

Burden of Proof

Civil and criminal law also differ when it comes to how much proof is required to win a case if/when it goes to court. Civil law operates on a “preponderance of evidence” standard. This means that a plaintiff must provide enough evidence to back up their complaint so that the judge or jury is satisfied that there is a greater than 51% chance that the claim is true.

In a criminal case, the prosecution (plaintiff) must prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to secure a conviction. The evidence and arguments presented must establish the defendant’s guilt so clearly and with such certainty that the alleged wrongdoing can only be accepted as fact by a rational person.

Case Outcomes

Not all civil cases escalate to a full trial. Many lawsuits are settled (resolved) outside of court through attorney mediation or professional arbitration. If a civil case does reach the trial phase, the court will use the preponderance of evidence standard to determine if the accused party is liable for the wrongdoing. The judge may order the liable party to perform certain actions, which usually include paying a predetermined amount of money in damages. Civil judges can also make decisions regarding property ownership and guardianship of family members.

Criminal cases may also avoid the trial phase. This typically happens only if the defendant takes a plea bargain or if the prosecutor dismisses the case because the standard of evidence cannot be met. However, if there’s sufficient evidence, it’ll be up to the judge and/or jury to determine whether or not the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Penalties in criminal cases may include paying monetary damages or fines, as well as substantial jail sentences for serious felonies.

When Civil & Criminal Law Meet

While the civil and criminal sides of the law are treated as separate, they intersect more often than most people realize.  Since two different court systems handle these cases, the concept of double jeopardy is moot, and civil attorneys will often take on cases after they’ve already had a criminal trial. As we mentioned earlier in this post, criminal law deals with offenses against the state, but the offenses often stem from a violation against an individual. For instance, a victim injured in a carjacking could reasonably bring the perpetrator to civil court to recover monetary damages to help pay for their car repairs and medical bills. They may even be awarded punitive damages as compensation for their emotional distress. It’s important to remember that while someone may be acquitted of a crime in criminal court, they can still be held liable in a civil case for the same conduct.


KJC Law Firm has over 125 years of combined experience litigating major personal injury cases in civil court. We have the resources to investigate your claim, hire the necessary experts, and get you the compensation you deserve. We understand the effects an injury or accident can have on you and your family, and we know the methods the insurance companies will try to use to blame you, even when it isn’t your fault. We’re here to help – schedule a free consultation with our team to start your journey to restitution.

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