Everything You Need to Know About the Difference Between Civil vs Criminal Court

The lawyer population in the country is 15% higher than it was 10 years. With thousands of lawyers available throughout the country, it’s important to understand which type you need. That can depend on the type of legal matter.

Maybe you have pending litigation against you. In other cases, you might want to file charges against an individual or company. Determining whether you’re undergoing a criminal matter or civil case is important.

What’s the difference between civil vs criminal cases?

Keep reading to find out

Differentiating Civil vs Criminal Law

First, let’s run through an overview of the differences between civil vs criminal law.

There are three main ways you can differentiate a civil vs criminal case: the type of case, the punishment, and burdens of proof.


In criminal cases, the case is filed by the government. They’re usually referred to as the State. In these cases, an individual can’t file charges against another person. However, an individual can report the crime.

Only the government can file the charges. The crimes are usually split into two broad classes, based on severity: felonies and misdemeanors.

If someone is charged with a felony, there’s a possibility sentencing involves over a year of incarceration. With misdemeanors, the sentencing is usually a year or less.

When a person is arrested and charged with a criminal crime, they have to go to criminal court.

Criminal laws apply when someone commits a crime, including:

  • Assault
  • Robbery
  • Murder
  • Arson
  • Rape

Civil law covers other disputes, such as when one person sues another. There were 277,010 civil case filings in 2018 alone.

Types of civil matters include:

  • Evictions
  • Foreclosures
  • Divorces
  • Custody
  • Consumer problems
  • Damages
  • Injuries

In a civil lawsuit, the case begins once a complaint is filed by one party against the other. During this process or litigation, the plaintiff asks the court to order the defendant to remedy a wrong. The remedy usually involves monetary compensation.

You might need to go to a small claims court in order to handle your civil case.


The judges involved in a civil case vs criminal case have different legal powers. For example, a criminal court judge can send you to jail as punishment for breaking a law. A civil court judge, on the other hand, can have you pay money or a fine.

Civil court judges can also influence decisions about your family or home.

Criminal litigation is more serious than civil litigation. In a criminal case, criminal defendants have more rights and protections than a civil defendant in a civil lawsuit.

Burdens of Proof

For criminal law cases, the government is responsible for the burden of proof. They’re required to prove that the defendant is guilty.

In a civil law cause, the burden of proof first lies with the plaintiff. Then, the defendant has the chance to refute the evidence.

Do Crime Victims Need Lawyers?

If you are the victim of a crime, you don’t need a lawyer in criminal court. Only a lawyer who works for the government can file the case in criminal court. This lawyer is referred to as the prosecutor, district attorney, country attorney, or state attorney.

What If I Can’t Afford a Lawyer?

In these cases, the government will file a case against someone for committing a crime. The accused party responsible for breaking the law is known as the defendant. It’s the government’s job to prove the defendant is guilty.

If the defendant is found guilty, they’ll go to jail for their crimes.

What happens when you’re involved in a criminal court case? For starters, it’s important to remember that you have the right to a government-paid lawyer. Your public defender or legal aid lawyer will represent you in court.

If you can’t afford a lawyer, the judge will assign one to your case. Make sure the judge knows you can’t afford a lawyer on your own.

Whether or not you’ll receive a public defender or legal aid lawyer will depend on your income. Each court has different rules regarding the range you’ll need to meet before you qualify. The judge will likely ask you to fill out a form listing how much you earn or what you own to determine this range.

With that in mind, you might want to have copies of your paystubs to prove how much you earn.

If a legal aid lawyer or public defender isn’t available, the judge might assign a lawyer to present you pro bono, or for free.

If you’re not a US citizen, you can ask for a public defender or legal aid lawyer to check with an immigration lawyer. Making a plea bargain during your case could impact your immigration status. Some plea bargains even lead to deportation.

Speaking with an immigration lawyer can help determine if there’s a plea bargain arrangement that won’t result in deportation.

Your Local Bar Association

If you can’t afford a lawyer for your civil court case, you can also contact your local bar association. Their lawyer referral service can help you find a licensed, private lawyer with previous experience relevant to your case.

Make sure to meet the lawyer beforehand to determine their experience and expertise. This is also a chance for you to discuss the details of your case.

In some cases, a lawyer will only get paid if they win your case for you.

What Happens in a Civil Case?

In civil court, one person will file a case, or sue another person due to a dispute between the two parties. A business or agency can choose to file a case in civil court. An individual can also file a case against a business or agency.

When a party loses in civil court, they’re expected to pay money to the other side. They might also have to return property. However, that individual won’t have to go to jail if they lose their case.

Civil Court Cases

There are a few different types of civil cases you might come across. These cases usually involve:

  • Money and debts
  • Property
  • House (eviction, foreclosure, repairs)
  • Injuries (car crashes, medical malpractices, environmental harm)
  • Marriage and children (divorce, child custody, child support, guardianship)

Government agencies might also decide to host a hearing to handle a civil case that involves:

  • The denial of public benefits (food stamps, Medicaid, welfare)
  • Traffic violations
  • Social Security and SSI benefits
  • Discrimination and civil rights violations
  • Unemployment and workers compensation hearings

In order to win a civil case, you’ll need to prove your case is stronger than the opposing side’s.

Get Yourself in Order: Understanding the Differences Between Civil vs Criminal Court

Now that you understand the difference between civil vs criminal court, you can find a lawyer equipped to handle your case. Their experience and expertise can help you avoid jail time in a criminal case or receive the compensation you deserve from a civil case.

Searching for more legal tips? Check out the rest of our blog for more informative articles today!