Difference between Civil and Criminal Cases

Published on December 20, 2016

If you read the paper, watch news on TV, or browse through news websites, you might have come across the terms “criminal case” and “civil case.” You may have already figured out that the two are the main categories of cases or charges, but do you know what they really are?When do we consider a case “civil?” And when is an offense considered “criminal?” This article will discuss the difference between the two.

Definitions

Civil vs Criminal Cases

A civil case is a conflict between private entities such as organizations and individuals regarding legal matters (e.g. ownership and contract disputes). The objective of a civil case or a civil proceeding is to provide compensation to the complainant or plaintiff by demanding restoration, restitution, monetary fines from the wrongdoer, or an order to do or not to do an action.

Additionally, it is the wronged person or entity’s responsibility to file a case against the wrongdoer in civil cases. The defendant then secures aide (i.e. an attorney) with his own expense. In some countries, if the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, he will be allowed to represent himself. In most cases, a jury is not necessary in a civil proceeding since the decision will be made solely by the judge.

Examples of civil cases are:

  1. Breaking the rules and stipulations of a contract
  2. Property disputes
  3. Property damage
  4. Child custody/support
  5. Divorce
  6. Personal injury (Say, Tracy slipped on a wet floor at ABC Grocery and had to undergo operation. ABC Grocery can be asked to pay for the consequential damages)

On the contrary, a criminal case or a “criminal charge” is a violation of the criminal laws of the state. It happens when an individual commits an offense that is a threat to the public. Criminal laws aim to penalize the criminal and to discourage him and others from committing the same crimes and to reform him as a person. If the defendant is proven guilty, he or she will be imprisoned, asked to pay a fine, perform community service, or will be in probation.

Criminal offenses include but are not limited to:

  1. Robbery/Theft
  2. Murder
  3. Arson
  4. Drunk driving
  5. Rape

Note that even if there is only one victim in a rape case, for example, it is considered an offense to the entire public. In drunk driving, for instance, where there is sometimes no actual victim (say, the driver hit a tree), it is still considered a threat to the welfare and safety of the society. This is why it is not the victim, but the government or state, who will file a case in criminal cases. Moreover, the defendant will have to hire an attorney, and in cases where he or she does not have the financial means to get one, the state will provide for him or her. A jury is almost always necessary in criminal proceedings.

Civil vs Criminal Cases

What, then, is the difference between civil and criminal cases?

A civil case arises when two private parties disagree on legal matters (e.g. contract disputes or divorce), while a criminal case happens when an individual commits an offense that is considered a threat to the entire public (e.g. kidnapping or rape).

Further, civil laws aim to award compensation to to the complainant by demanding monetary fines, restitution, restoration, or injunction from the wrongdoer. In criminal laws, the aim is to reform a felon and to punish him by imprisonment, demanding monetary fines, probation or community service. This is to deter him and others from committing the same crimes.

Because criminal offenses are a threat to the society, the government or state will file a case against the felon. Then he or she is given the right to get an attorney and will be given one if he or she does not have the financial means to do so. In civil cases, the responsibility to file a cases lies with the wronged party, and the defendant will pay his own attorney fees or represent himself if he cannot afford one. A jury is necessary in criminal cases, but is not in civil cases.

Comparison Chart

Civil CasesCriminal Cases
Arise when two private parties disagree on a legal matterArise when a person commits a crime that is a threat to the whole society
Aim to provide compensation to the wronged partyAims to reform the felon and to discourage him and others from doing the same misdeed
Demand restitution, restoration, monetary fines, or injunction from the wrongdoerIf the defendant is guilty he will be imprisoned, in probationary status, asked to perform community service, or asked to pay a fine
The wronged party will file the caseThe responsibility to file a case lies with the government or the state
A jury is not necessaryThe judge and jury will decide the outcome
The wrongdoer will have to pay for his own counsel; he can represent himself if he cannot afford itThe felon has to hire an attorney; if he cannot afford one, the state will provide one for him