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The Differences Between Civil and Criminal Litigation

The U.S. legal system is split into two types of litigation: civil and criminal. “Litigation” refers to the process for handling disputes through the court system.

Who Files Civil and Criminal Cases?

The first difference between civil 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, the plaintiff asks the court to order the defendant to pay the plaintiff for their damages. The plaintiff may also ask the court to order the defendant to do or not do something.

Personal injury, breach of contract, and workers comp are common civil cases.

In a criminal case, the state (a lawyer called a prosecutor or district attorney) files the court case. The state says the defendant broke a law — such as the laws against theft or murder — and asks the court to sentence them to jail, probation, a fine, or some other punishment.

Standard of Proof in Civil and Criminal Cases

The “standard of proof” is different for civil and criminal cases. This is what a plaintiff in a civil case and the state in a criminal case must prove to a judge or jury.

In a civil case, plaintiffs simply need to convince a judge or jury by “a preponderance of evidence” that their case is stronger. This means that the judge or jury have decided that it is more likely than not that what the plaintiff says is true.

In a criminal case, 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 is guilty of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Other Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

Because a criminal conviction can carry harsher punishments than civil cases, criminal defendants are offered some unique rights. Criminal defendants can seek a lawyer through a public defender’s office if they cannot afford one. Criminal defendants almost always have the option of a trial by jury. Some civil cases must be decided by a judge.

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