The Difference between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

Aristotle declared the rule of law is better than the rule of any individual. Across the globe many countries use criminal and civil law in their legal system. The legal system consists of two different kinds of cases civil and criminal cases. The difference between a criminal case and civil case exists in the definitions.

 A criminal case refers to prosecution of the state of a person or organization who has committed a crime against the state while a civil case consists of disputes arising between private parties or people concerning the legal duties they owe one another. Criminal and civil cases differ in the following aspects:

Who files

The government takes the task of starting legal proceedings in a criminal case. Through the prosecutor (representative of government) the state begins filing a case against a person who has allegedly committed a crime. It is not the responsibility of the victim because a crime is considered an offense against the state or society.

However in a civil case it is the responsibility of the victim to start legal proceedings against the person or organization that has wronged them. It is the individual to pursue the case whether they want legal redress or not. The wronged party known as the plaintiff files the case in court.


In criminal law, crimes are divided into broad classes: felonies which carry a maximum possible sentence of more than one year of incarceration and misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of less than one year of incarceration. The examples of crimes in criminal law cases are burglary, assault, battery and cases of murder. Cases in civil law include negligence or malpractice, divorce and child custody proceeding.

The concept of punishment in a criminal case and civil case are different. In a criminal case a guilty defender is punished by either incarceration in a jail or prison or monetary punishment in form of a fine. In extreme criminal cases the death penalty is applied. Whereas in civil cases the punishment is in monetary terms.  

The punishment in civil cases is proportionate to the damage done. If the defendant in a civil case is found liable to the plaintiff then  the defendant will pay or forfeit property but will not serve any jail time unless the defendant is in contempt of court order.

Burden of proof

The prosecutor in a criminal case must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defender committed said crimes. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution not the defendant. The standard of proof is extremely high while in civil cases the standard of proof is lower. The plaintiff in a civil case has to prove preponderance of the evidence. More than 50 % of the evidence should favor the plaintiff. The difference in standards exists because of the seriousness of the offenses in criminal cases.

Trial by jury

According to the sixth amendment (American constitution) “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state….” The defendant in criminal cases is entitled to trial by jury but in a civil case a jury trial is not necessary. However a plaintiff or defendant can obtain a jury trial only in special instances otherwise many civil cases are decided by a judge.


The protection given to defendants under criminal cases is different compared to a civil case. Under the fourth amendment a defendant in a criminal case is protected against illegal searches and seizures. A warrant is obtained only under probable cause, the item and area to be searched is specified.

In the Fifth Amendment there is prohibition of double jeopardy that is a defendant who is found not guilty of a more serious charge cannot have a second trial on a lesser included offense. The prosecution in criminal cases can not appeal a not guilty verdict but the defendant can appeal a guilty verdict. In civil cases these kinds of protection are not available. Criminal offenses have greater consequences because of the possibility of jail or even death.

Right to an attorney

A defendant in a civil case is not given an attorney and must pay for one or defend him or herself. However in a criminal case the defendant is entitled to an attorney and if he or she cannot afford one then the state must provide an attorney.

The mantra is you are innocent till proven guilty in criminal cases and in civil cases, it is about liability. The difference stems from the nature of the cases because a murder case cannot be handled the same way a divorce or child custody case is handled.