Understanding the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law

In Domestic Violence, Separation & Divorce by Sarah Hink

For a lot of people, a courtroom is a courtroom, and a lawsuit is a lawsuit. However, while it all may seem intimidating to some people, it is worth understanding that not all legal proceedings are the same. In fact, the law is basically broken down into two separate systems: civil law and criminal law. These cases have very different subject matters, are often heard by different judges, are handled by different attorney, have very different consequences, and have different procedures of appeal.

Criminal Law

Criminal laws are designed to punish or deter the public from engaging in bad acts. Criminal cases are brought to a court by a state or federal prosecutor (in cooperation with an investigative agency) against a defendant on behalf of the government. The prosecutor’s goal is to prove that a defendant has broken the law based on his or her acts or omissions.

The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is the highest burden of proof available under the law. In other words, a prosecutor has the burden to prove the elements of a crime against a defendant to a judge or jury. Unlike other types of cases, people who are defending themselves from the state’s accusations are entitled to a jury trial, and are also entitled to refuse to incriminate themselves on the stand.

Ultimately, criminal law has severe consequences as they seek to restrict a person’s freedom or to otherwise restrict their legal rights because of their wrongdoing. So not only are guilty defendants subject to incarceration, but they are also subject to government monitoring (probation), the loss of their right to vote, and significantly, a criminal record—which can severely restrict a person’s ability to find employment.

Civil Law

In contrast to criminal law, a civil lawsuit involves two or more parties, one of whom is seeking relief against the other. Civil cases don’t involve a person’s incarceration. Instead, they involve parties fighting over different types of relief based on the subject of the lawsuit.

Examples of civil cases are family law cases, like alimony proceedings, where one party seeks a judgment ordering the other party to pay them spousal support. In child custody cases, one party sues another seeking favorable custody orders. In personal injury cases, injured people sue negligent people or entities for damages that compensate the injured person for their medical expenses, lost property, or pain and suffering.

The burden of proof is lower for civil cases than for criminal cases. Further, there are many types of civil cases where parties are not entitled to seek a jury and must try a case in front of a judge.

Criminal Cases and Civil Cases Can Overlap

There is sometimes an overlap between criminal cases. Think of the example of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder in his criminal case; yet, he was found responsible for his victim’s death in a civil case and ordered to pay money to compensate his victim’s families. This wasn’t “double jeopardy”, as civil cases are separate from criminal cases, and importantly, his civil trial had a lower burden of proof than his criminal trial.

Another ways that a criminal case can relate to a civil case comes in the context of family law cases. For example, if one spouse commits a crime against the other spouse or their child, that crime is directly relevant to actions that a family court may take against that spouse. The other spouse may use the criminal conviction to demonstrate that she or her is entitled to: (1) a protective order; (2) a divorce from bed and board; (3) a high alimony award; and (4) primary child custody.

Contact New Direction Family Law

If you or your spouse has a criminal history or has engaged in a crime that led to the divorce, contact New Direction Family Law. There are ways in which crimes intersect with family law cases, and our attorneys can help you understand these intersections while making sure that your legal rights are protected. Our attorneys are smart, experienced, and motivated. Contact us today. We serve clients throughout Wake, Johnston, Durham and surrounding counties. Call (919) 719-3470 to schedule an initial consultation or visit us online through our website.

Sarah J. Hink
New Direction Family Law

New Direction Family Law
(919) 719-3470