If you have ever watched the hit legal shows Suits, The Practice or Law and Order you know that terms such as civil and criminal cases are discussed without really getting into the details of what constitutes a civil case and what makes a criminal case. While legal dramas and movies do a great job of showing the inner workings of a courtroom, they often miss the mark on explaining the details of legal terminology and definitions of determinations between a criminal and civil case. 

The United States justice system places wrongdoing in two main categories – Civil Cases and Criminal Cases. Readers need to understand the difference between a civil and criminal case to comprehend the type of legal proceedings that are appropriate and what possible outcomes may occur. 

Let’s dig a little deeper to understand the characteristics that place a case within the criminal or civil world. 


What Is A Civil Case? 

A civil case typically involves disputes between parties (people) regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe to one another. For example, divorces, child custody, personal injury and contract disputes end up in a civil case also called a civil lawsuit. 

What Is A Criminal Case? 

In general terms, criminal cases are offenses against the state, even if immediate harm is done to an individual. They are prosecuted by the state in a criminal court. 

A criminal case is usually referred to as the Defendant V. The State of Massachusetts (or corresponding state). An example of a criminal case could include drunk driving, sexual assault, fraud, burglary, assault and battery, breaking-and-entering, drug charges and weapons-based offenses.  


Differences in Punishment, Standard of Proof, Trial & Attorney

Criminal and civil cases are not just fundamentally different in who is involved, whether it is a charge between individuals or the state and an individual, but also by the type of punishment, trial and standard of proof that is needed. 

Types of Consequences & Punishments 

Criminal and civil cases are generally different in terms of punishment or consequences. Generally, money is at stake in a civil case. Criminal cases, on the other hand, have greater consequences, including the possibility of jail and even the death penalty, when applicable. 

Standard of Proof 

The standard of proof is also very different in a criminal case versus a civil case. While everyone accused of a crime should be considered innocent until proven guilty, the burden of proof is a bit different in each type of case. 

In a criminal case, the standard of proof includes the concept that the proof of the crime must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the prosecution must convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation that can come from the evidence presented at trial. 

In a civil case, the standard of proof is much lower and the terminology used in this is “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that it is more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way.

Form of Trial 

Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Civil cases do allow juries in some instances, but many civil cases will be decided by a judge alone in what is referred to as a bench trial.

The Right to an Attorney 

Further differences in criminal and civil cases focus on the right to an attorney. In criminal cases, all defendants have a right to legal representation whether they can afford it or not. Should they not be able to afford it, a public defender is supplied.

In civil cases, an attorney is not guaranteed but paid for by the individual. If they can not afford one, then they can represent themselves. 

For more information on criminal and civil cases and how to get the representation you need, talk to our team at Patrick Conway Law. Contact us online or via phone at (978) 473-7599