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What is the difference between a criminal and a civil case?

As we began discussing in our last post, it is often possible to hold people accountable in civil lawsuit even when criminal charges are not successful because the standard of proof is different in each type of case.

As a FindLaw.com article explains, criminal charges must usually be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high burden on the prosecution. In civil cases, the allegations must be usually be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence," which is similar to saying “more likely than not.”

This difference exists because the outcomes in criminal cases are much more severe than in civil cases. In criminal cases, a person’s liberty is at stake, whereas in a civil case, only money is at issue.

Here are a few other important difference between criminal and civil lawsuits:

  • Crimes are considered offenses against the state or society as a whole so the state files charges against the defendant. But in civil cases, it is usually the parties who were wronged that file the claims.
  • As noted above, the penalties in criminal cases and civil cases are different. In criminal cases jail time and/or fines can be assessed, but in civil cases, only monetary damages can apply.
  • Most criminal cases are decided by a jury of peers, while many civil cases are decided by a judge.
  • Defendants in a criminal trial are provided with an attorney if they cannot afford to hire one, but defendants in a civil case are not and must pay for attorney themselves.
  • Defendants cannot be forced to testify in a criminal case, but they can be forced to take the stand in a civil case.

Hopefully, this helps to clear up the main difference between a criminal and civil lawsuit. In some cases, a defendant may face both types of lawsuits for the same act, such as following a drunk driving accident; more on that in our next post. 

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