The American legal system is divided into two different types of litigation – civil and criminal. The term “litigation” refers to the process for resolving disputes through the court system.
Who Files Civil and Criminal Cases?
The first difference between civil cases and criminal cases involves who can file the case in court. In a civil case, a wronged party – called a “plaintiff” – files a suit accusing misconduct by a defendant. As part of the suit and to remedy the injury the plaintiff suffered, the plaintiff asks the court to order the defendant to pay the plaintiff or asks the court to order the defendant to do, or not do something.
Personal injury, breach of contract, and worker’s compensation are typical examples of civil cases.
In a criminal case it is the state, represented by a lawyer called a prosecutor or district attorney, who files the court case. The state alleges that the criminal defendant broke a law – such as the laws prohibiting theft or murder – and asks the court to sentence the defendant to jail, probation, a fine, or some other punishment.
Standard of Proof in Civil and Criminal Litigation
The standard of proof is different for civil and criminal cases. The “standard of proof” is what a plaintiff in a civil case and the state in a criminal case must prove to a judge or jury to win their case.
In a civil case, plaintiffs simply need to convince a judge or jury by “a preponderance of evidence” that their case is stronger. “A preponderance of evidence” means that the judge or jury have decided that it is more likely than not that what the plaintiff says happened, actually happened.
In a criminal case, on the other hand, the state has a much higher standard of proof. To gain a conviction in a criminal case, the State must convince a judge or jury that the defendant committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Other Differences Between Civil and Criminal Litigation
Because a criminal conviction can carry harsher punishments than civil cases, criminal defendants are offered some unique rights. Criminal defendants, unlike civil defendants, are entitled to representation through a public defender’s office if they cannot afford an attorney. Criminal defendants almost always have the option of a trial by jury, while some civil cases must be decided by a judge.