Civil vs Criminal Case

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: November 14, 2022  •  6 min read  •  Legal
Approved Course is reader-supported. If you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small commission.

The United States law recognizes two types of legal cases: civil cases and criminal cases. These are two very different types of legal cases, but they do have some similarities, too.

When you think of a criminal case, you will likely think of someone that has committed a crime. It’s a type of case that deals with issues that impact society.

On the other hand, civil cases often deal with financial compensation. They may include a business or an individual seeking compensation for an injury or another type of damage.

When looking at civil vs criminal cases, it’s important to understand the differences. While the differences are pretty easy to see with a basic definition, they go deeper. Let’s look at the differences between these two types of legal cases.

Civil vs Criminal Case: The Differences

When looking at civil and criminal cases, you will see there are several differences. Whether it comes to the type of punishment, the type of lawyer taking the case, or the actual type of case itself, these are two very different legal cases.

When it’s a criminal case, the case is against the state. Even if the crime was committed against a specific person, it is considered a crime against the entirety of society. A civil case, however, is often one individual against another or a corporation against an individual, or a corporation against a corporation.

The Punishment

In a criminal case, the defendant will be punished with potential fines, probation, community service, jail time, prison time, or even the death penalty, in severe cases. The punishment is determined by the crime and the criminal record of the defendant. Of course, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

A civil case will dole out a punishment that is mainly financial. It may be a judgment from an actual judge or from a jury, but the punishment will be financial in nature. Nobody will go to jail or prison in a civil case.

The Lawyers

Criminal cases involve prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. The prosecutor will represent the state, while the criminal defense lawyer will represent the defendant. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, a public defender will be provided by the state.

Civil cases can include multiple types of lawyers. It’s common for this type of case to include lawyers from an insurance company or corporation and personal injury lawyers. There could be other types of lawyers included, too.

There is also a difference in whether or not you get a lawyer. When you face a criminal case, you are entitled to a lawyer. You have a right to have a lawyer defend you, even if you cannot afford one. A public defense attorney will be appointed for you if you cannot afford one on your own.

When facing a civil case, you don’t have a right to an attorney. Instead, if you cannot afford to hire a lawyer to reparent you, it will be necessary to represent yourself.

The Type of Case

The type of case is very different, as well, between a civil and criminal case. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is guilty. There will likely be a jury for this type of case that will help to ensure reasonable justice.

Civil cases don’t require the same burden of proof or standard of proof. Instead, they are easier to provide. Only a preponderance of evidence is required, which basically means if there is better than a 50% chance that the claim is true, the case will be judged for the plaintiff. A judge will often decide civil cases, not a jury.

Another unique difference between a civil and criminal case is who will be there. In a criminal case, the defendant is almost always in the courtroom. During a civil case, it may just be the lawyers representing both parties in the courtroom.

Civil vs Criminal Case: Common Types of Cases

It’s even easier to see how civil and criminal cases are different when you look at the different types of cases. It’s very common for a criminal case to targe one individual, while a civil case may deal with the property and rights of an organization or an individual.

Common Types of Criminal Cases

Common Types of Civil Cases

Is it Possible to Face Both Civil and Criminal Action?

Civil and criminal cases are certainly different, but they can still overlap. An individual or company can face both civil and criminal action. Sometimes, if a criminal trial is dismissed, the individual or family may file a civil case to seek compensation.

Since criminal cases are harder to prove, it can make sense for this to happen. There may not be enough evidence to charge someone criminally, but there may be enough evidence for a civil case.

This has happened quite often. A good example is when OJ Simpson faced criminal charges in 1995. The criminal case was dismissed because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, a civil case was filed two years later by the families of the deceased. OJ Simpson was found liable for their deaths and the families received over $40 million due to the civil case.

There are some very big differences between civil and criminal cases. If you’re considering becoming a lawyer, you should consider the type of cases you want to take. Also, if you’re facing legal action, it’s also important to understand the difference.

With both types of cases, stress can be a part of the process for all involved. Criminal cases tend to come with a bit more stress, as this type of case could lead to jail time, however. Either way, criminal and civil cases are both very different.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.