The two main types of court cases are criminal and civil. Criminal cases involve punishments for harmful acts toward society; only actions which have been classified as a crime by federal or state laws can be considered a criminal case. Civil cases are arguments between two or more people or organizations over legal rights. There are a few important differences between the two types of cases.
Where the case is started
A criminal case can’t be started by the victim. The victim can bring evidence of a crime to the police, but it is up to law enforcement to make the charges and up to the prosecutor to file criminal charges. Sometimes in a criminal case a victim may even disapprove of charges being filed.
In a civil case the injured party will decide that they want to bring their case to the courts. They then hire a civil attorney to represent them.
In a criminal case, the punishments can include fines, prison or many other different types of alternative sentencing. In civil courts, the cases are usually settled with one person paying money to the other, but under no circumstances can either party end up in jail.
Right to an attorney
If you are facing a criminal matter, you have the right to a criminal attorney. This means that even if you can’t afford a criminal lawyer, you will not have to represent yourself, but instead the government will provide with a lawyer free of charge.
For a civil case, anyone can choose to have a lawyer, however the government will not provide one free of charge. The plaintiff will have to represent themselves or pay for a civil attorney.
Burden of proof
In a criminal case, the prosecutor has the burden of showing the court that the defendant committed the crime ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This makes a big difference in the way the criminal process plays out. The criminal defense lawyer only has to create reasonable doubt by showing that the evidence of the crime is weak and insubstantial, that the witness testimonies are not reliable or that incriminating evidence was obtained unfairly, such as through duress during an investigation.
Civil cases depend on the plaintiff showing a ‘preponderance of evidence’. This means that the court only has to find the defendant likely of being responsible for the damage. Where in criminal court the jury must be certain the defendant committed the crime, in criminal court they must only be more than 50% sure.
Defendants in serious criminal cases, such as felonies are entitled to a jury trial. In civil cases, they may be allowed a jury, but they may not be depending on the type of civil action .
When facing both civil and criminal courts
Sometimes a person could be facing both criminal charges and a civil action. In these situations, the decision of one of the courts could directly oppose the decision of the other court. A famous example of this occurred in the OJ Simpson case where all criminal charges were dismissed for the double homicide, but in a separate civil case OJ was sued for the ‘wrongful death’ of the victims by their families.