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Civil Law vs Criminal Law (Difference: All You Need To Know)

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What is the difference between Civil Law vs Criminal Law?

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Let me explain to you what is the difference between Civil Law and Criminal Law!

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What Is Civil Law And Criminal Law

Fundamentally, civil law and criminal law are two different sets of laws governing different aspects of our lives.

Simply put, civil law broadly refers to the set of laws governing civil rights and property rights.

Criminal law, on the other hand, refers to a set of laws defining various crimes and the punishments associated with those crimes.

Civil law and criminal law differ in many ways, such as who can bring forward a lawsuit, the plaintiff’s burden of proof, the possible punishments or remedies available to the parties, statutes of limitation, the appeal process, and more.

Generally, individuals, companies, governments, and private parties can file a civil lawsuit against another dealing with a private matter.

On the other hand, only the state can initiate criminal proceedings against an individual defendant.

In civil proceedings, the defendant does not generally face the risk of imprisonment whereas in criminal proceedings, many crimes can potentially lead to the defendant getting locked up.

Keep reading as I will further break down the difference between civil law and criminal law so you know how they work.

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Difference Between Civil Law vs Criminal Law

Let’s look at the main differences between civil law and criminal law.


Civil law refers to the body of laws dealing with disputes between individuals, legal entities, governments, organizations, and private parties seeking compensation for damages or injuries suffered along with other civil remedies.

Criminal law refers to the body of laws dealing with what society defines as crimes along with the punishment associated with such acts.


The main purpose of civil law is to resolve private disputes between individuals, corporations, and private bodies.

A defendant in a civil lawsuit can be held liable or not liable for damages.

On the other hand, criminal law deals with the safety and security of the public living in society.

The objective of criminal law is to punish offenders and rehabilitate them so we can all live in a safer place.

A defendant in a criminal lawsuit will be found guilty or not guilty of a crime.

Burden of Proof

In civil law, the burden of proof is known as the “preponderance of evidence”.

This means that the plaintiff has the burden to prove that his or her position is more likely to be true based on the balance of probabilities.

On the other hand, in criminal law, the prosecutor can achieve a conviction of a defendant by presenting proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

This means that the evidence must conclusively show that a criminal defendant committed a crime and must be punished for it.

Statute of Limitations

Civil law and criminal law can differ quite a bit in regard to the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations refers to the legal deadline a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit against another.

Civil disputes are generally governed by specific statutes of limitations whereby the plaintiff is required to file a civil lawsuit before the legal clock runs out.

If a civil lawsuit is filed following the expiration of the statute of limitations, the matter will not be heard by the court.

However, criminal law is designed to help us live in a safe society.

As a result, every state will define the statute of limitations applicable to different types of crimes.

However, serious crimes such as murder, major theft, sexual crimes, rape, and kidnapping may not be subject to any statute of limitations.

This means that the state will have the right to criminally charge someone for a murder committed 30 years ago.

Filing of Proceedings

In a civil lawsuit, any private party, such as an individual, company, organization, or government, can file a lawsuit against another private party.

A civil lawsuit is initiated by the filing of a complaint and summons calling the defendant to respond to the allegations.

However, in a criminal lawsuit, the state can file a criminal proceeding against an individual.

This means that only the prosecutor, representing the state, can file a criminal lawsuit against a person.


In the United States, civil proceedings can be presented in front of a jury or a single judge.

Depending on where the civil lawsuit is filed and the applicable rules of civil proceedings, the parties may opt for a jury trial or trial before a judge.

On the other hand, in criminal proceedings, the trial is held before a jury and a person can only be convicted of a crime based on a unanimous jury verdict.


In civil lawsuits, the plaintiff will typically seek financial compensation for damages suffered or injuries.

A plaintiff can also seek other types of remedies, such as injunctive relief where a party is ordered to do something or prohibited from doing something.

On the other hand, criminal lawsuits can involve not only financial penalties but also jail or prison sentences.

This means that a defendant can potentially be locked up depending on the nature and severity of the crime committed.

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Civil Law vs Criminal Law Examples

Let’s look at some examples of civil law matters and criminal law matters to better illustrate their differences.

A civil law dispute refers to the body of laws aimed at resolving disputes between individuals and private citizens.

Examples of civil law matters are:

  • Child custody disputes
  • Divorce
  • Bankruptcy 
  • Breach of contract
  • Injunctive relief
  • Property damage
  • Violation of non-compete agreement
  • Sale of business dispute 
  • Property title dispute

As you can see, the dispute involves private parties and the remedy sought is quite often financial compensation.

Criminal law refers to the body of laws designed to keep us safe in society and free from harm.

Examples of criminal law matters are:

Criminal proceedings are initiated by the state when they believe they have proved beyond reasonable doubt that a person has committed a crime.

Recommended article: What are victimless crimes


So there you have it folks!

What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

In a nutshell, both civil law and criminal law are bodies of law designed to assess the violation of someone’s rights and establish who is at fault.

However, they differ in many ways, namely on purpose, the burden of proof, the statute of limitations, filing of proceedings, presence of a jury, and punishments.

Civil law involves a dispute between two or more private parties where one asks the court to establish the other’s liability.

Criminal law considers the acts of a person against what society considers a crime.

Only the government has the power to commence criminal proceedings against a person.

Since a person can be sent to jail or prison in a criminal proceeding, the prosecutor has a much heavier burden of proof, namely “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”.

This is not the case in a civil lawsuit as the plaintiff will only have to prove on the balance of probabilities that the other party committed a wrongful act.

Both civil law and criminal law are essential for a properly functioning society as they allow the resolution of private disputes and allow us to live in harmony with one another.

Now that you know what the differences are between civil law and criminal law, good luck with your research!

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Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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