Most people have a pretty good grip on the basics of criminal law; however, civil law tends to give people a little more trouble. Criminal law covers crimes, prosecution, and defense. That’s really as good a definition as any. However, more specifically, criminal law encompasses the dealings with any criminal activity that causes harm to another individual or the general public. Within the criminal law realm, there are written rules and statutes that set out the punishment to be imposed on people who do not obey the law. Civil law, on the other hand, deals with disputes between individuals or organizations, in which compensation may be awarded to the victim.
First and foremost, civil and criminal cases begin in two different places. In criminal law, a person accused of a crime is charged in a formal accusation, and the government, on behalf of the people of the United States, prosecutes the case. In civil law, a private party (the plaintiff) claims that another person or entity (the defendant) has failed to carry out a legal duty owed to him/her.
One of the biggest differences between civil and criminal law is the idea of punishment. Typically, a losing defendant in civil litigation reimburses the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant’s behavior. In contrast, a criminal law defendant is punished by incarceration in jail (and in exceptional cases, execution of the defendant) and/or a fine made payable to the government.
Defendants in criminal cases are presumed innocent while parties in a civil case stand on even ground. In civil law cases, the burden of proof requires the plaintiff to convince the trier of fact (whether judge or jury) of the plaintiff’s entitlement to the relief sought. This means that the plaintiff must prove each element of the claim, or cause of action, in order to recover. In criminal law cases, the burden of proof is always on the state. The state must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defendant must prove nothing.
It is worth dissecting this difference between criminal and civil law in a bit more detail. Legal authorities tend to believe that “beyond a reasonable doubt” means that there is at least a 98% or 99% certainty of guilt. In that case, the triers of fact in a criminal case have to be essentially CERTAIN that the defendant is guilty. On the other hand, in civil cases, if the trier of fact believes that there is more than a 50% chance that the defendant is liable, the plaintiff wins. Therefore, it is basically a balancing act, where the trier of fact must decide which side they believe more, even if only a touch more.