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Think You Know The Difference Between a Criminal and a Civil Case?

By February 12, 2018August 18th, 2021Legal 101

If you watch a lot of Netflix, you probably have a mental image of a courtroom with a stern judge and a jury. And in fact that image could apply to either a criminal or a civil case. But there are significant differences between the two, and they matter.

If you see someone being thrown into jail, then you know it’s a criminal case.

Criminal cases include jail time as a potential punishment, whereas civil cases usually only result in monetary damages or orders. (Note that a criminal case may involve both jail time and monetary punishments in the form of fines.) Also, a criminal case is generally based on a crime (think murder or theft) and is considered an offense against the state or society as a whole. Accordingly, criminal cases are prosecuted by the state and the prosecutor (not the person hurt) files the case.

If the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then you know it’s a criminal case.

On the other hand, civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof such as “the preponderance of the evidence” (which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way). The difference in standards exists because civil liability is considered less blameworthy and because the punishments are less severe.

If you see 12 jurors, then you know it’s a criminal case – usually.

Civil cases do allow juries in some instances, but many civil cases will be decided by a judge. If you are accused in a criminal case, you will be provided an attorney, but if you are filing a lawsuit in a civil case (which makes you a plaintiff – more about that later), then you have to provide your own attorney or represent yourself.

The Same Conduct Can Result in both Civil and Criminal Cases
Although criminal and civil cases are treated differently, many people do not know that the same conduct can produce both cases. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is the OJ Simpson trial. There was a murder trial (criminal) and a wrongful death trial (civil). Although there was not enough evidence for a jury to decide that OJ Simpson was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in the criminal murder case, in the civil trial it was found that he wrongfully caused his wife’s death.

At A Case for Women we help injured women understand and access legal action in the realm of civil lawsuits.

This is because we focus on not only helping individual women, but on making changes that help society as a whole. 

For example, Essure legal action (a mass tort)  aims to ban this product in the United States as well as provide compensation for individual women who have been hurt. Many environmental cases call for clean-up and monitoring as well as compensation to victims. And sexual abuse cases generally seek to add protections so that perpetrators can never have easy “access” to victims again, thus changing the systemic pattern of abuse.