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Civil Law vs Criminal Law

When the average layperson thinks about breaking the law, they by default are thinking about criminal law. However, there is also civil law to consider, which has its own set of characteristics. Here are some of the principle differences between civil and criminal law.

Legal Definitions

Criminal Law – In criminal law, the government will file the case. In order to prove their case, the burden of proof is always on the government. They must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty and win a unanimous decision from the jury.

Civil Law – Cases are filed by private parties in civil cases and deal with the disputes between people or organizations where compensation is awarded to the plaintiff. While Federal courts require an unanimous verdict, in most civil case the plaintiff only has to prove that the “preponderance” of the evidence favors them. This can also be referred to in simpler terms as “more likely than not.”

This varies from state to state though. In Missouri, the decision of the jury must be 9-3 for the plaintiff to win. But in Federal courts, the plaintiff must get a unanimous verdict.

Punishment Comparison

A defendant in civil litigation will not be incarcerated and certainly never executed. Losing defendant in civil litigation only reimburses the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant’s behavior. Either party (plaintiff or defendant) can be found at fault.

Criminal Law – The crimes are divided into two basic classes: felonies and misdemeanors. The defendant is found guilty when the jury decides unanimously in favor of the plaintiff. If they are found guilty, the punishment is a fine (paid to the government), imprisonment, or death, in states that allow for the death penalty. The decision is and dry: guilty or not guilty.

Civil Law – There is more flexibility with guilt in a civil case. Both the plaintiff and defendant can be found partially right or partially at fault. Either way, the party found guilty cannot be imprisoned and certainly not put to death. But if they are found guilty, they must pay what’s called punitive damages as determined by the judge.

The Appeals Process

Either party may appeal the decision in a civil case. However, in a criminal case, only the defendant can file an appeal. If the person(s) found guilty want to appeal, they have a limited time to file their appeal.