Understanding the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law

Civil law and criminal law are two distinct legal entities with separate sets of laws and punishments. Criminal law applies to cases of serious violations of the public, society, or the state, such as murder, assault, robbery, and drunk driving. On the other hand, civil law deals with behavior that constitutes an injury to a person or other private party, such as a corporation. Examples include defamation (including libel and slander), breach of contract, negligence resulting in injury or death, and property damage. The cause of action for a civil violation of the law could include incidents such as property damage, violations of custody, or a contract dispute.

In the case of civil litigation, if the judge or jury believes that more than 50% of the evidence favors the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs win. This is very low compared to 99% of criminal law evidence. Criminal laws at the local, state, and federal levels define criminal activities and establish legal punishments for those found guilty of crimes. Criminal law cases are only conducted through the criminal court system. On the contrary, civil laws deal with the private rights of individuals.

Some civil law matters are dealt with outside a court of law, for example, through an external mediator. Alternatively, lawsuits can be resolved through a non-criminal trial. The burden of proof falls first on the plaintiff and then on the defendant to refute the evidence presented by the plaintiffs in civil cases. In criminal cases, however, it is up to the government to prove that the accused is guilty. Therefore, under criminal law, the defendant is responsible for the burden of proof; under civil law, it is up to the plaintiff. In addition to differences in cause of action and filing procedures, there are also differences in how cases are decided (a judge or jury), types of punishment or sanctions that can be imposed, standards of proof that must be met, and legal protections that may be available to the accused. For example, in criminal cases those found guilty are often jailed but penalties can also include fines.

In civil cases, however, remedies or sanctions may include compensation for damages or losses suffered by victims. Offered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, this program offers an in-depth view of public policy, threat assessment, and criminal behavior while encouraging students to develop their critical thinking and communication skills.