Criminal Law vs Civil Law- What’s the Difference?

Updated: Mar 15, 2019



Criminal Law and Civil Law are two closely related fields but are totally different from each other. So if you’re facing case, a law student, or just someone who is interested in criminal law, this article is for you. I’m Nashville’s Criminal Defense Attorney and I’ll share to you comparison and contrast of criminal law and civil law.

Comparing Criminal Law and Civil Law

  • Definition- Criminal law definition is a body of laws which covers criminal acts committed against the public, community, or the state. It also includes criminal charges, penalties, convictions, and trial. Civil law deals with a feud between private parties like organizations and individuals wherein victims are compensated.

  • Goal- Criminal law aims to stabilize peace and order of the community by punishing offenders and stopping them to commit more crimes. Civil law target to settle disputes between private parties and to award payment for the victims.

  • Filing of Case- The government (even if the victim is an individual) files the case against an offender in criminal law while the private party files in civil cases.

  • Proof Standard- "Preponderance of evidence." for a civil while "Beyond a reasonable doubt" for a criminal.

  • Jury’s Decision- Jury is almost impossible to get involved in civil law cases. And if they are, their decision does not have to be unanimous. But with criminal cases, members of the jury should have one vote before a suspect gets convicted.

  • Punishment Types- If you lose a civil case, you’ll have to compensate (commonly money) for the injuries or damages incurred to the victim. The injunction in nuisance is also a punishment which will stop you from threatening or interrupting the victim’s peaceful use of his property. Convicted criminals are punished through imprisonment (custodial) or non-custodial which are fines and community service. In some countries, the death penalty is imposed.

  • Conviction- Terms liable and not liable are used for civil law case conviction while guilty or not guilty is for a criminal case.

What are examples of criminal cases or offenses?

Crimes can be categorized depending on their gravity. Felony charges are more serious crimes which caused severe damage to property or injury or worse death of an individual. These are punishable with more than one year in prison. The lower category is misdemeanor charges which are less serious like jaywalking and shoplifting. Maximum jail time for this is only one year.

Criminal law further specified crimes into four sub-categories which are Personal Crimes like murder and rape; Property Crimes such as arson; Inchoate (incomplete) Crimes like an attempted robbery; and Statutory Crimes such as selling alcohol to minors. I have a more detailed discussion of these crimes here.

What are examples of civil cases or offenses?


Breach of Contract is an example of civil case

Here are the most common civil cases you might already hear:

  • Landlord versus Tenants- Landlord can sue a tenant who does not want to get evicted. A tenant can sue a landlord for not returning security deposits.

  • Tort claims- Tort means a wrongful act is done to someone or his property or reputation. Examples of this are negligence, medical malpractice, defamation, and fraud.

  • Equitable claims- A private party can file a case so the court would order the other party to stop or make an action. An example is stopping a building construction or selling a specific product.

  • Breach of contract- This is common in a business and corporate world where the other party did not meet or violated their agreement, whether verbal or written. Examples are going AWOL, not finishing a project or not delivering contracted products and services.

I hope this simple explanation in Criminal Law vs. Civil Law helped you with your legal service needs. Bookmark my page Nashville Criminal Defense Attorney blog for more information on criminal law.


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