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Civil and Criminal law : The major Differences



Civil and Criminal law: Introduction

The US legal system is divided into criminal and civil aspect. Each has laws that regulate it. In the same manner, each has its distinct procedure and goal.

By meaning,  the Collins Dictionary defines Criminal law as follows:

“that area of law which deals in any way with crimes and their punishments”


The Collins Dictionary also defines Civil law as follows:

the body of law having to do with the private rights of individuals”

Criminal law is a body of law that focuses on crime committed against the law of the state. Such law of states prescribe offences and punishment for violation of same.

Civil law on the other hands, are body of laws that focuses on enforcement of civil rights of individuals or bodies, and obligations created by law.

While, criminal law focuses on punishment and rehabilitation, Civil law focuses on dispute resolution, declaration of rights, damages and Injunctive reliefs(Injunction).

Example of Civil and Criminal cases.

The following are examples of Civil Cases:

  • Defamation suit
  • Action for negligence
  • Nuisance
  • Declaration of title or injunctions
  • Recovery of premises from tenant
  • Divorce or custody dispute
  • Breach of contract etc
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On the contrary, examples of Criminal cases include:

  • Murder
  • Rape and other sexual offences
  • Kidnapping
  • Theft
  • Assault
  • Drunken driving
  • Robbery
  • Homicide etc

Commencement of Civil and Criminal action

In criminal cases, whenever a suspect is arrested, the police will draft a charge against the suspect. The criminal suspect will be arrainged in court base on the content of the charge sheet.

In court, the charge will be read to the accused person, and the accused person will be required to enter his plea to the charge. This is how criminal trial begins.

Again, the state whose laws has been discreted is the prosecutor in criminal cases.

Civil cases however, starts with the aggrieved individual filing a petition, complaint form or claim in court against the Defendant.

The principal party in civil proceeding is the individual whose rights has been, is being or likely to be violated.

ADR is more potent in Civil cases than Criminal cases

In Civil cases, there is possibility of parties resulting to alternative dispute resolution(ADR) mechanism to settle their case out of court. Parties have right to withdraw their matter from court and settle it themselves as well.

But in criminal cases, both the victim of crime and the alleged offenders has little or no say on how criminal Proceedings are determined.  The State has the final say on whether to prosecute crime committed or not. State also determine when to discontinue criminal trial.

Although, there is possiblity of alleged offenders and the State going into a plea Bargain, the plea bargain process doesn’t end with discharge of an accused person.  The accused person is only given concession for admitting the elements of the crime charged.

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Who initiate the Civil and Criminal Action?

It is the state who initiate criminal cases. Whereas, individual initiate civil actions. In some jurisdiction, private individuals can prosecute suspects only after getting written authority to do so from the state.

Again, any person can file civil actions in court but criminal actions must be filed by the state, through the prosecutor, Who would have weighed the quantum of evidence at his disposal against the accused person, and come to a conclusion that a prima facie case has been made against the suspect.

Burden and Standard of Proof in Civil and Criminal Cases

The burden of proof in Criminal cases is on the Prosecution. It is the duty of the state to proof the essential ingredients of the offence alleged against the accused person.

In proving the offence charged, the standard of proof required to establish the guilt of an accused person is proof beyond reasonable doubt.

The evidence that is required to secure the conviction of a suspect must be cogent and compelling, as to arrive in the conclusion that the accused person and no other person committed the crime.

Where this burden is not discharged, the accused person will be discharged. That is, where the Prosecution fails to prove the essential elements of an offence, the accused person will be discharged.

In civil cases however, the degree of proof required is proof on the preponderance of evidence (balance of probability).

The plaintiff is required by law to prove the reliefs sought in his suit. Though, with lesser degree of certainty compared to the degree required in Criminal cases

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The nature of Punishment and reliefs in Civil and Criminal Cases

In Criminal cases, the focuses is usually punishment of an offender. Where an accused person is found guilty, the accused person will be sentenced to terms of imprisonment, probation, fine or incerceration.

But in civil cases, the emphasis is always award of damages, not punishment. The compensation of the victim of civil wrong or injunctive orders is always preferred.

Appeal Processes in Civil and Criminal Cases

In criminal cases, in United States, once an accused person has been convicted of a crime, only the accused person has right to appeal against the judgement of court convicting him. Appeal can be made up to Supreme Court of United States.

But in Civil cases, appeal can be made by either party to the civil suit, regardless of whose favour the suit was determined.

Statute of Limitation in Civil and Criminal Cases.

The general principle of criminal law is that time does not run against the State. In other words, a person can be charged for crime anytime, crime has no statute of limitation save for certain offences defined by law.

Although, time does not run against the State in prosecuting offenders, it is preferable to prosecute offenders timeously when the evidence of what happened could still be fresh in the minds of the victim of the crime.

But in Civil cases, there is always statute of limitations on when action must be brought before the court.

Can civil suit and Criminal action emanate from same incidence?

Civil action and criminal action can emanate from the same incidence, although, both need not succeed at the same time.

Thus,  a person can be charged for Criminal offence and civil wrong from the same incidence.


The principles that governs criminal cases are quite different from the ones that govern civil procedure. The major principle of cvil law is that “he who alleges must prove”

As noted by Kenny, the burden of proof, rules of evidence, litigation strategy and overall philosophy of a case is different between the criminal case and civil case.


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  1. Superb👌👌

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