Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases

There are similarities in Criminal and civil cases. Both are held in a state court presided over by a state judge and state employees. In a Common Law jurisdiction, such as England and Wales, the root of law in English speaking jurisdictions, rulings arising in the civil courts on matters of law is followed in the Criminal court and vice versa. Occasionally, there is a crossover between civil and criminal cases, when the same facts form the basis of two cases, one civil and one criminal. For example, where a transport company breaches England’s health and safety legislation, causing a serious accident, it commits a crime, but those injured in the accident may also sue in a civil court for damages for their injuries. However, there are many differences between civil and criminal cases.

The purposes of civil and criminal law are different. Law exists to regulate everyone’s conduct. The criminal law regulates citizens’ behaviour in society. Stealing is wrong. It is not a good thing, in any society, for individuals to steal. Therefore, Parliament passed the Theft Act 1968, which amended and added to earlier statutes on theft. A civil court case is a person or organization suing another individual or organization, thus a civil case is listed in two names for example, Donohue v Stevenson 1932 House of Lords. A criminal case is the state prosecuting a defendant for wrongdoing of some kind. The results are also different. A criminal case results in punishment levied by the state, which range from community service, fines, to imprisonment.

In a criminal case, the police investigate the crime. The criminal prosecuting authority, in England and Wales the Crown Prosecution Service (in other jurisdictions, the Procurator Fiscal, district attorney, or public prosecutor etc) decides whether the facts the police gathered, on investigation, amount to a prima facie case against the defendant. For example, where a police officer catches D driving a car under the influence of drink. The officer may breathalyse D at the roadside, and again at the police station. They will arrange for the police surgeon to conduct a blood or urine test. The police will question the suspect and gather necessary evidence to prove that the suspect was driving with more alcohol in his body than the law allows. It is then the prosecuting authority’s decision whether to prosecute. Criminal prosecutions in England and Wales are usually in the monarch’s name, thus R (ex) v Crippen 1901. It is open to an individual citizen to bring a private prosecution in particular circumstances.

Criminal courts deal only with crimes. Civil courts deal with all other aspects of law, family law, tort (civil wrongs), land law, property transfers, contract breaches et cetera. Civil law cannot usually, except in particular circumstances) impose criminal sentences, such as community service, fines, or imprisonment, on defendants. The result of a civil trial can be a court order, injunction or an order that the defendant to pay damages to the claimant (prosecution). 

In England and Wales, criminal cases always begin in the magistrates’ court. The magistrates decide, in that first court appearance, whether the defendant before them has a case to answer. Magistrates’ courts then try less serious cases, but refer serious criminal cases to the Crown court. Magistrates may try cases and then refer the case to a higher court for sentencing. This is because magistrates’ jurisdiction is limited and they may feel that the case merits a higher sentence than they can give.

In criminal cases, the prosecution must prove their case and cannot compel the defendant to take the witness stand. In civil cases, the defendant must take the witness stand or be in contempt of court and suffer the consequences.

Civil cases may begin in the county or High Court. Criminal cases determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence. Civil cases usually determine whether the defendant is liable to the plaintiff, the person or company prosecuting the civil case against him.

The standard of proof required in criminal and civil cases is vastly different. A criminal trial must determine the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the plaintiff need only prove the defendant’s liability on the balance of probabilities, which means that what the prosecution alleges is more likely to have occurred than not.

In England and Wales, civil court judges rarely sit with a jury these days. Serious criminal cases, where the defendant pleads not guilty, especially where the defendant could face imprisonment, go to jury trial in the Crown Court.

Criminal cases stem from a defendant committing a crime, behaviour that the country’s law states that no individual or organization may do. Criminal courts try defendants, whose behaviour offends against society. What constitutes a crime may change over time, for example, until 1991, rape within marriage was legal, Homosexual acts between consenting adults in private was a crime until 1967 (Sexual Offences Act 1967). Civil cases deal with the relationships between individuals and organizations within society. The main difference between a civil case and a criminal case is that a criminal case begins with a crime, an offence against society, as a whole, whereas a civil case deals with all other legal matters. 

Offline Resources : Criminal Law Catherine Elliot and Frances Quinn (Pearsons)

                             Criminal Law Richard Card (Butterworths)