The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Jurisdiction

Published on Sep 2, 2021 at 3:55 pm in Legal Information.

Outside of courthouse

In the United States, unlike many parts of the world, civil and criminal cases are handled under two separate and distinct areas of jurisdiction. Civil laws are in place to resolve disputes between individual parties, while criminal law deals with offenses that have occurred against the government or state. The type of law that applies to a situation depends on the circumstances. Knowledge of the difference between civil and criminal jurisdiction will help you know how to proceed, should you face a situation which calls for legal action. It is always beneficial to seek the guidance of an accomplished personal injury lawyer if you are unsure whether your situation falls under civil or criminal jurisdiction.

Definition and Examples of Civil Jurisdiction

Civil law handles disputes between individuals, or between an individual and another private entity, such as a company or organization. In a civil case, it is usually claimed that one party is the victim of an offense or negligence done by the opposing party and resulting in loss or damage. In such cases, civil jurisdiction can provide benefit to the injured party in the form of some type of compensation, and can also serve to hold the injurious or negligent party accountable for their actions. The following are some of the more common case types handled under civil jurisdiction:

  • Personal injury
  • Breach of contract
  • Negligence resulting in death, injury, or other damage
  • Child custody cases
  • Divorce
  • Property dispute

Definition and Examples of Criminal Jurisdiction

Criminal law, on the other hand, is a system of legislation dealing with offenses which are deemed to be perpetrated against the government or society. Even though the victim may be an individual and not society at large, such as in a case of murder or assault, the offense may still be considered a criminal case when it involves lawbreaking action. Criminal law aims to punish people who commit crimes, rather than settle disputes between individual parties. Some examples of behaviors which would be dealt with under criminal jurisdiction include:

  • Murder
  • Theft or burglary
  • Drunk driving
  • Assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Illegal substance use

Main Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

There are several ways civil and criminal jurisdiction are dissimilar from one another. The following list indicates a few main differences in the way court cases are handled:

  • Who Files a Case. In civil cases, an injured party, referred to as the plaintiff, begins proceedings by filing a complaint against the individual or entity, called the defendant, who caused injury or harm by failing to carry out the duty of care owed to the plaintiff. For criminal cases, in contrast, the proceedings commence when a case is filed by the government or state against an individual alleged to have committed a crime. In criminal cases, the government prosecutes the defendant on behalf of the citizens of the state or nation.
  • Burden of Proof. The burden of proof determines who must provide evidence and what level of evidence can substantiate a claim. The standards of providing proof differ between civil and criminal proceedings. In criminal law, a defendant must be proved guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” demanding a more rigorous standard of evidence to make a conviction. The burden of proof falls on the state in criminal cases. Civil law instead requires that there be a “preponderance of the evidence,” or a demonstration that the claim is more likely true than not true. The burden of proof lies initially with the plaintiff, and secondarily with a refuting defendant, in a civil case.
  • How Outcomes Are Determined. A case under criminal jurisdiction and a case under civil jurisdiction use different methods to decide a verdict. Criminal courts generally employ both a judge and jury to determine verdicts of guilt or innocence based on evidence which can provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil decisions in court are typically made by a judge (and in some cases jury) who makes decisions on the basis of a preponderance of the evidence. Because of the differing requirements on evidence, some cases which do not have enough evidence to succeed in criminal court may be handled under civil jurisdiction.
  • Compensations and Punishments. When a plaintiff initiates a civil case, they are seeking compensation for a wrong that has occurred against them. Compensation usually comes in the form of a monetary award of an amount determined through legal proceedings. Criminal cases, on the contrary, do not normally seek to resolve an issue through compensation, but rather aim to determine a sentence of punishment, which could be a fine, probation, community service, imprisonment, or, in extreme cases under certain state laws, the death penalty.

Can a Case Be Both Civil and Criminal?

In short, yes. In some situations, a single instance of wrongful behavior may best be handled by both civil and criminal law. Because the two realms of jurisdiction—civil and criminal—vary greatly in structure and purpose, both may be used in specific situations to resolve an issue and right a wrong. A wrongful action may represent both a private injury and a crime against the state, resulting in a situation in which the actor faces both criminal and civil charges. For example, when one person is willfully killed by another, there may be criminal charges of murder, as well as a civil suit for wrongful death.

Benefit from Our Legal Expertise

You are right to inquire into the circumstances surrounding your case to determine whether it is best handled under civil or criminal law. Our attorneys at Belsky & Horowitz, LLC are well prepared to help you make that determination. By scheduling a free consultation with our firm, you’ll know that you are backed by years of legal experience in Maryland’s civil and criminal courts. We can partner with you to achieve the compensation you deserve while holding negligent parties responsible for harmful actions.



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