What is the Difference between Criminal Law and Civil Law?

The subject of law is very broad. Even if many legal dramas or TV series give an individual a basic idea of what goes on court, they still leave a lot to be discussed. Law is a complex system that needs to be very precise and decisive to keep society secure. There are many branches of law, each one dealing with a particular area. Lawyers have specializations on the field that they studied, which means you shouldn’t approach the top criminal defense attorneys for civil disputes.

An important distinction to be made when it comes to the legal system is that criminal law and civil law are separate entities. Some people think that the two are one and the same, but they undergo different processes and resolutions and even give different punishments. To further differentiate them, one must take a more in-depth look into the two fields.

What is Civil Law and Criminal Law?

Simply put, civil law is the law of civil or private rights, while criminal law is the law of crimes and their punishments. The main difference between the two lies on the receiver on the offense.

Civil law deals with cases between individuals, organizations, and other private parties. It includes companies and corporations, as well. The complaining party is referred to as the “plaintiff,” and the responding party is the “defendant.”

The whole process of the civil case is called litigation, where the plaintiff asks the court to be compensated by the defendant for what the latter did. The judge or jury will decide on what legal consequences to apply after carefully assessing the pieces of evidence presented. Property disputes, breach of contract, and divorce proceedings are just several examples of civil cases.

On the other hand, criminal law deals with the legal punishment for criminal offenses. It is the government that initiates and files criminal cases against the defendant, which means that an individual cannot file any criminal charges. If you’ve been a victim of any crime, the police must find and punish who is responsible. Defendants will then hire a criminal defense attorney to help them with their case. Crimes such as murder, obstruction of justice, and theft fall under criminal law.

In civil law, the complaint or the case is filed by the plaintiff, whereas it is the government that does so for criminal law.

Common Types of Civil Cases

Civil litigation and criminal cases are very different, and knowing the cases that they cover will help differentiate the two. There are various civil cases concerned with numerous kinds of disputes.

These are five common types of civil cases:

Tort claims

These claims refer to accusations of negligence and intentional wrongdoing. The plaintiff claims that the other party has caused them physical or emotional harm. Some examples are assault and battery, emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and medical malpractice.

Breach of contract claims

This type of civil case involves a dispute over a contract. When a party breaks an agreement that is clearly indicated in the contract, a lawsuit can be filed against them. Disputes between a landlord and a tenant or a violation of a business agreement fall under these cases.

Equitable claims

This claim is when the plaintiff asks the court to order the private party to stop doing something. Equitable claims are concerned with issues like the destruction of property and transferring property to the rightful owner.

Class action claims

These are similar to tort claims, except the party that cries foul is a group of people. These claims are common in corporations. A sample of a class action claim involves a company that exposes a vast number of people to hazardous materials. Producing defective materials that eventually caused injuries or deaths is under this claim, too.

Hiring the top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles may be ideal if your chosen lawyer is also experienced and knowledgeable in civil cases.

Common Classifications of Criminal Cases

Civil claims are strictly for offenses or disputes between two private parties. The aim is to address the wrongdoings or receive restitution. However, with criminal cases, the main goal is to punish the violator, with the jury gauging a punishment that will be enough to pay for the crimes committed.

Criminal cases are divided into the following classifications:


These are small, petty offenses that usually result in paying a fine. Violations cannot result in a jail sentence, and so, offenders do not have a right to a jury trial.

With this, the government also doesn’t have a constitutional duty to appoint an attorney to the defendant. They can contact the top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles, but that’s not always necessary. The most common example of a violation is a traffic offense.


A misdemeanor is more serious than a violation, but not more than a felony. In most states, this can result up to a year of jail time. Other punishments can be probation, community service, a fine, or restitution. The severity of the punishment differs according to the degree of the crime committed. Public intoxication and disorderly conduct fall under misdemeanors.


The most serious of criminal offenses are felonies. These are actions that caused severe harm to others like murder, rape, or kidnapping. Repeated misdemeanor offenses can elevate to felonies. There are different groups based on the crimes, and each class has a maximum jail punishment. The accused can remain in prison for a year or even for life.

One doesn’t have to be a defendant or one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles to know these classifications. Having set apart the types of civil claims from the criminal cases, the two different law areas are not so confusing to understand anymore.

Varying Burdens of Proof

In civil cases, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. They have to produce the evidence to back up their claims and build a strong case. It lies with the defendant to refute the presented evidence by the plaintiff.

If the judge or the jury finds that more than 50% of the evidence favors the plaintiffs, then they would win the case. Technically, it’s not necessarily on which side brought more proof, but rather, which side was more convincing.

When it comes to criminal cases, the accused must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is on the state, and it is the government who must prove that the defendant is guilty.

Attorneys help with counsel and representation for the accused. Top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles know their field and they are responsible for negotiating a plea bargain or perhaps reduction of charges.

Differences in Jury Trials, Punishments, and Appeal

Civil cases and criminal cases don’t just vary in the definition and the kinds of cases it covers. The whole process is entirely different, down to the juries, punishments, and appeals.

There is a pool from where the juries are chosen. The number depends on the state and the type of case. Criminal cases almost always have a trial by jury. For civil cases, however, the resolutions are decided by a judge most of the time, although they can have juries in some circumstances. In some cases, the jury doesn’t have to be unanimous. There are also verdicts based on the voice of three-fourths or five-sixths of the jurors.

There is also a huge distinction when it comes to the punishment of the crime. With criminal cases, when the defendant loses the case, they can go to jail and pay a fine. Top criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles can suggest a criminal sentence that would be more favorable to the defendant and still be deemed as appropriate punishment by the judge.

The resolution of civil cases doesn’t result in incarceration. There are likewise monetary penalties and other reliefs, as stated by the court. When a party isn’t satisfied with the judgment of the civil case, they have the right to appeal their case. In fact, either party may appeal to a higher court. For criminal cases, it is only the defendant who can file an appeal.


Written by Adrian Dimakis

Adrian Dimakis loves writing about everything tech, gadgets, travel and leisure as a full time editor at LearningRegistry. Adrian graduated from UCLA with a degree in journalism and marketing, and his work has appeared in publications including USAToday and The Boston Globe. When he's not testing gadgets and accessories, checking different online services, you can find him planning his next trip on a big paper world atlas with lots of pins. Adrian is also an avid consumer with an oddly deep love for finding amazing deals on amazing products.

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