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What is the Difference Between Criminal & Civil Law?

Not every case that is heard by a judge is related to a criminal matter. There are some matters that are settled in civil courts, and the judgments in those cases are financial in nature. What are some other differences between criminal and civil law that you should be aware of?

No One Goes to Jail in a Civil Matter

If a defendant loses a verdict in a civil case, he or she will pay damages to the plaintiff that has won the case. There are situations in which the defendant may have a counterclaim, and in those instances, it is possible that he or she could receive damages from the plaintiff.

It is important to note that someone who is in court for a civil matter may also face criminal charges related to that case. However, those charges will be resolved in front of another judge and jury, and the results of one case don’t necessarily have any bearing on the results of the other.

Criminal Cases Could Involve Financial Penalties

A criminal case could involve financial penalties even if there is no civil suit. For example, a judge could order a defendant to pay restitution to victims in addition to jail time and other penalties. There are some crimes that call for mandatory penalties if an individual is convicted that may include fines or repossessing property that was bought with stolen money.

The Burden of Proof Is Lower in a Civil Case

In a civil court, a plaintiff needs to show a preponderance of the evidence to win a case. In other words, it has to be more likely than not based on the evidence that a plaintiff was the victim of a defendant’s actions and suffered financial damages as a result.

In a criminal court, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed a crime. If there is any reason to think that someone else may have committed the crime in question or that nothing illegal took place, the jury would have to acquit that person.

Civil Cases Generally Resolve Disputes Between Individual Parties

A civil case is one in which an individual may have a dispute with a neighbor over property lines or a contractor over failing to finish installing a new roof. These cases may be resolved in mediation or through other alternate methods before going to court.

Small claims courts are civil courts that handle cases in which a plaintiff seeks roughly $5,000 or less. Going through mediation or going to a small claims court may be beneficial because it may allow a matter to be resolved without the need for either side to spend money on an attorney.

Civil Cases Don’t Have Many Lasting Effects

If you are convicted of a crime such as drug possession or DUI, it may stay on your record even if you are acquitted of the charge. This could impact your ability to find a job or get into school. If you lose a civil case, it simply means that you owe someone money, and at worst, the verdict may remain on your credit report for a few years. However, would not necessarily disqualify you from getting work or otherwise moving on with your life.

Criminal Cases Generally Involve Witnesses and a Jury

In civil court, cases are usually decided by the judge presiding over them, and witnesses are typically not called. In a criminal court, cases are decided by a jury unless the defendant waives his or her right to a jury trial. When that occurs, the judge will make a ruling after hearing evidence in what is known as a bench trial. Regardless of who decides the case, witnesses may be called by either side. Witnesses may also be cross-examined one or more times after testifying.

It is important that you understand the difference between criminal and civil law as it may guide your thought process as it relates to resolving a dispute. If you have any questions about how to handle a legal matter, it may be a good idea to talk to an attorney in your area.

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