Difference between a Civil and a Criminal Court

Updated on June 15, 2017

In the US, civil and criminal courts are legal institutions characterized by separate jurisdictions. This article explains the major differences between the two.

Definitions

Civil
Plaintiffs in the Flint class action lawsuit, a civil case

A civil court is an institution of the government that aims to settle disputes between two or more parties. In the US, a civil court acts as an intermediary between these parties who can no longer resolve their problems on their own. In a civil court proceeding, one side (i.e. plaintiff) sues the other (i.e. defendant) and demands payment of monetary damages, orders the defendant to do or cease doing something, or change legal status (e.g. divorce). When several individuals file a case against the same defendant in a single complaint, it is called a class action lawsuit. Grounds for a class action lawsuit include corporate misconduct, financial fraud, unfair labor practices, or a defective product or service.

In civil cases, parties are not usually given the right to a jury trial or the verdict is not required to be unanimous. For instance, a motorist files a lawsuit against a drunk driver and seeks damages for hitting the former’s vehicle. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to prove that drunk driver’s action indeed caused damage or harm. If the plaintiff wins, the offending driver may be instructed to cover the plaintiff’s hospitalization, lost wages, etc.

A criminal court functions as a court of law where people or institutions facing criminal charges (i.e. crimes against the people) are prosecuted. The government is represented by the prosecutor who determines the charges to be brought up against the defendant. It is the prosecutor’s responsibility, and not the victim’s, to prove the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In addition, a victim is not required to be part of the legal action.

If a criminal defendant is incapable of getting legal representation, an attorney will be provided to him/her. Though it may seem unethical, an attorney is legally bound to represent the defendant. In some jurisdictions, a defendant may be allowed to represent himself/herself.

A defendant is usually given the right to a jury trial in which the verdict must be unanimous. If found guilty, the defendant may face imprisonment, payment of fines, or supervision by a probation officer.

Criminal offenses such as impaired driving, assault, robbery, and breaking and entering are common cases that are prosecuted in criminal courts.

Civil vs Criminal Court

So what’s the difference between a civil and a criminal court? While in some countries all types of cases are handled by one court, civil and criminal cases are usually handled separately in the US.

A civil court handles disputes involving persons or business organizations. In contrast, criminal courts handle cases brought up by the government against criminal offenders. Civil courts act as intermediaries in class action lawsuits, family law cases, personal injury (tort) cases, and contract disputes, to name a few. Criminal courts prosecute individuals charged with federal crimes such as assault, robbery, driving impaired, etc.

Comparison Chart

Civil CourtCriminal Court
Settles disputes between two partiesDetermines violations of criminal law
Usually does not have the right to a jury trialDefendant has the right to a jury trial
No need for unanimous verdict; judge or jury reach conclusionsProsecutor must prove defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt

Video

For more about civil and criminal courts, check out this YouTube video.

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