Main Differences between Civil and Criminal Law

Criminal law exists to regulate the relationship between individuals and the state. It deals with crimes – actions and behaviors which are forbidden by the State as they are considered to have consequences which affect society as a whole. In criminal law the primary purpose is to punish those found guilty in order to maintain law and order.

Civil law deals with relationships between individuals, a term which, in law, means individual corporations as well as individual human beings. The disputes dealt with do not affect or concern society as a whole. The primary purpose of civil law is to compensate individuals who have suffered loss or damage.

It is for these reasons that issues of civil and criminal law are dealt with very differently.

Criminal law is dealt with by the state. The police can arrest people for committing crimes; the state can then prosecute them and, if they are found guilty, impose a punishment such as a fine, or imprisonment. These penalties are not intended to compensate the victims of crime – they are designed with the sole intention of punishing the guilty party.

In civil law, proceedings are started by an individual – the claimant. The process is called an action or a claim. Unlike in criminal cases, the aim is not to punish the defendant, but rather to return the claimant to the position they were in before any loss occurred. This is usually achieved by awarding compensation known as ‘damages’ which are paid directly to the claimant by the defendant.

The terminology used in each type of law is also different, for example;

In criminal law the state brings a prosecution for a criminal offence whereas, in civil law, the injured party brings an action or claim for a civil wrong. Although both types of cases have a defendant, the other party is called the prosecution in criminal cases and the claimant in civil claims. The defendant in a criminal case is convicted if found guilty and acquitted if found innocent. In civil claims, they are either found liable or there will be no finding of liability.

Criminal cases can be held before a judge and jury, whereas civil cases are held before a single judge. Although the decision making process is similar for both, the standard of proof required is very different.

In criminal law, the standard required is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This means that, for a defendant to be found guilty, the judge or jury must be satisfied that the prosecution have proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offence. If that judge or jury have even one bit of doubt, or if they feel there is even the smallest chance that the prosecution have got it wrong, then the law states they must find the defendant not guilty.

In civil cases, the standard of proof is not quite so stringent. Instead, claims are decided on the balance of probabilities. This means that, in order to find a defendant liable, the judge need only find that the claimants’ side of the story is the most likely version of events.

The reasons for requiring a higher standard of proof in criminal law are fairly straightforward. Criminal convictions carry very serious consequences for the accused, therefore, it is extremely important that decisions regarding guilt or innocence are held to the highest possible standards and are not made lightly. That is not to say that civil cases are decided any less diligently, just that defendants in criminal cases warrant an extra level of protection given the severity of the penalties they could face if they are convicted.

To summarize; the main differences between civil and criminal law are;

Civil law deals with areas of law which govern the relationship between legal persons (i.e. individuals and corporations), whereas criminal law deals with wrongs which are sufficiently important for the state to outlaw.

Civil and criminal law are significantly different in their aims and their results.

The primary purpose of the criminal law is to punish; a defendant who is found guilty will be sentenced to a punishment such as a fine or imprisonment and the punishment does not directly benefit the victim of the crime.

In civil law, the aim is compensation, not punishment; a defendant who is found liable will have to pay damages; this does directly benefit the claimant because the compensation is paid to them personally.

Lastly, and most significantly, the standard of proof required is much higher in criminal cases because the possible consequences for the defendant are far more serious.