Learn the important differences between Civil Law and Criminal Law.

Definition and Purpose

Civil Law:  Civil Law deals with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation is awarded to the victim.  The purpose of civil law is to help resolve disputes between individuals, organizations, or the government.

Criminal Law:  Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.  The purpose of criminal law is to maintain the stability of the state and society by punishing offenders and deterring them and others from offending.

Standard of Proof

Civil Law:  In a civil law context, the plaintiff can only win if the preponderance of the evidence is in his favor.  In other words, it must be more likely than not that the plaintiff is entitled to compensation.

Criminal Law:  To convict someone of a crime, the prosecutor must show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.


Civil Law:  The losing party in a civil case is usually required to financially compensate the prevailing party for injuries or damages.  The losing party may also be enjoined (prohibited) from engaging in certain behavior.

Criminal Law:  A guilty defendant is subject to imprisonment, fines, or community service. In certain states, particularly heinous crimes may result in the death penalty.

Types of Cases

Civil Law:  Personal injury, contract disputes, employment disputes, landlord/tenant disputes, divorce proceedings, child custody proceedings, property disputes, etc.

Criminal Law:  Theft, assault, robbery, trafficking in controlled substances, murder, etc.


Civil Law:  Either party can appeal a court’s decision.

Criminal Law:  Only the defendant may appeal a court’s verdict. The prosecution is not allowed to appeal.


Civil Law:  Jury verdicts may not need to be unanimous, depending on the laws of the state.

Criminal Law:  The jury must agree unanimously before a defendant is convicted.


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