What are the Main Differences Between Criminal and Civil Law?

November 30, 2023by See You In Court

The law governs many aspects of our lives, and when disputes arise, there are two main paths a case might take: criminal law and civil law. At first glance, they might seem similar, as both involve some form of legal proceeding. However, they are different in terms of their objectives, how they are processed, and the outcomes. Let’s review the differences between the two.

The Burden of Proof

In both criminal and civil law, the burden of proof lies with the party initiating the case. In criminal law, the prosecution has the burden of proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. This is a high standard, emphasizing that there should be no reasonable doubt in the minds of the average person that the accused is guilty. Anything less, and the defendant is acquitted.

A Preponderance of the Evidence

In the civil world, the burden of proof is considerably lower. Here, the Plaintiff, or the party claiming to have been wronged, must satisfy the burden by “the preponderance of the evidence.” According to the Court in Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Hansen, this means that the fact at issue is more likely true than not. Another way to put it is that the evidence must be of greater weight or more convincing than any opposing evidence. The reduced burden of proof makes it easier to win a civil case than a criminal one, but the consequences are usually less severe, often involving monetary damages rather than imprisonment.

Possible Outcomes in Civil vs. Criminal Law

The outcomes in civil and criminal cases vary. In criminal cases, possible outcomes include Nolle prosequi (the prosecutor decides not to proceed), dismissal, plea agreement or plea bargain, a not guilty verdict, or a guilty verdict which can result in imprisonment, fines, or other penalties. In civil cases, the outcomes are generally less harsh, with possibilities such as dismissal, judgment in favor of the Plaintiff or Defendant, or a settlement. Monetary compensation is the most common outcome in civil cases.

Why Outcomes of Criminal and Civil Cases Don’t Have to Be the Same

In some cases, the same set of facts could lead to different outcomes in civil and criminal cases. This is mainly due to the different burdens of proof required. For example, a person acquitted in a criminal case for lack of evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” may still lose in a civil case where the burden of proof is only a “preponderance of evidence.” The famous O.J. Simpson case serves as a classic example. He was acquitted in his criminal trial but found liable in the civil case.

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