Difference between civil and criminal law

Difference between civil and criminal law (1)

Difference between civil and criminal law

When trying to understand the main differences in law, one major distinction has to be made: civil versus criminal law. They govern different spheres of entities and issues within the law, and most attorneys specialize in one or the other (although a general practice can include clients with both criminal and civil cases). Generally, criminal law is meant to govern crimes, which then the government will prosecute. On the other hand, civil law is between private individuals or larger entities who have brought forth complaints/disputes against one another.


A criminal law case will look very different from a civil litigation because the violations that have occurred are of different scopes, the burdens of proof/duty are not equal, and the person that can file charges is different. In a criminal case, it is the police (by the authority of the state) that has the right to file charges against another individual. If one citizen believes they have been criminally wronged, they cannot alone initiate a criminal proceeding. The government will be represented by a prosecutor, and the alleged perpetrator (the defendant) will be represented by a defense attorney. If the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint a public defense lawyer to them.

When determining whether the defendant is guilty or not, the jury or judge will have to receive arguments and evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, criminal law also has a mechanism that allows for speedier case completion: plea bargains. If a defendant signs a plea with the prosecution that says they are guilty, they can receive less severe punishment (or whatever else is agreed upon).


The first important distinction found in civil litigation is that an individual (or other entity that is not the government) can file a lawsuit against another party. The government is no longer the one arguing the case; instead, it is the entity who has filed the case – the plaintiff. The plaintiff will bring forth a case that argues the defendant violated some agreement or rights. Similar to criminal law, the party responding to the lawsuit is also called the defendant. Whereas criminal law has the highest burden of proof, civil law is much lower with the burden being placed on the plaintiff to sufficiently prove their claim to the judge.

Skip to content