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Differences Between the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems

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What are the Differences Between the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems?

There are two different types of court systems: criminal and civil. There are vast differences between the two systems, including different types of punishments, laws, and burdens of proof. While the two systems are usually separate, there are some situations where they seem to overlap, such as wrongful death cases and cases involving police misconduct.

How Does Each System Work?

The first difference that should be noted is that in the criminal system, the government (either state or federal) seeks to punish a person for violating rules that have been set by a state legislature or Congress. In the civil system, there is usually a dispute between individuals or organizations as to rights and/or duties that they owe each other. Since the motives behind the two systems are very different, they are adjudicated in different courts, with civil cases being handled in civil courts and criminal cases being tried in criminal or community courts. In the civil system, the injured party starts things by bringing a suit. On the other hand, a prosecutor can bring a criminal case regardless of the victim's wishes.

What Punishment are Available in Each System?

In the criminal system, if you are convicted you could face fines, probation, and jail time. If you are found to be liable in a civil case, you face possible monetary damages and you may be forced to give up property. But, you will never face jail time in a civil case. Also, it should be noted that one of the purposes of the criminal system is to stigmatize an individual, unlike the civil system.

What about the Burden of Proof?

The burden of proof is higher in criminal cases. For a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove his case "beyond a reasonable doubt." In contrast to this, in a civil case the person who brings the case need only show by a "preponderance of the evidence" that you are responsible. A "preponderance of the evidence" is anything greater than 50%. While there is no numerical figure for reasonable doubt, it is much greater than 50%.

A Familiar Example
An example may help in understanding the two systems. The case of OJ Simpson is one of the best examples. He was found not guilty of murder, but was found liable (which is the civil equivalent of guilty) in the wrongful death case. The reason for this is that the murder case was in the criminal system and the wrongful death case was a civil action. Because of the different laws, procedures, and most importantly the different burdens of proof, it was possible for one jury to not convict OJ of the murder charges and another jury to hold him responsible in the civil trial. Two different systems, two different results.

I Am Involved in a Criminal or Civil Trial, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Both legal systems are highly complicated and a criminal defense lawyer can be crucial in the outcome of your case, be it criminal or civil. Because of the many differences between the two systems it is important to get a lawyer experienced in the system you're dealing with. So, if you are facing criminal charges, you should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney . On the other hand, if you are involved in a civil case, you will want a more information on how to file a civil lawsuit.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 09-08-2015 01:48 PM PDT

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