What’s the Difference Between a Civil Trial and a Criminal Trial? Staff Profile Picture
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The United States is among the most litigious societies in the world. The IAALS reports that over 100 million cases are filed each year in state trial courts, with an additional 400,000 filed in federal courts. Defendants are tried in millions of civil and criminal trials throughout the country. While most people are aware of our nation’s legal system, their familiarity is likely limited to the civil courts (for example, divorce proceedings or fighting a traffic ticket), and they are less familiar with criminal proceedings. It is important that plaintiffs, defendants, and their attorneys clearly understand the differences between the processes of civil and criminal courts.  

Criminal Cases Vs. Civil Cases | Main Differences

While both types of cases go through similar legal processes, there are major differences between criminal and civil cases. Depending on the alleged damages, the circumstances of the injury or incident, the presence of individual victims, and other factors, your case could be filed as criminal or civil. It is important for both plaintiffs and defendants to be aware of the key differences between criminal and civil cases before the case goes to trial. The following list explains how a criminal case may differ from a civil case and how these trials are conducted.

Criminal Act vs. Individual Wrong

First and foremost, the main difference between a criminal and a civil case is the type of wrongdoing committed. Both state and federal laws clearly dictate what actions are considered criminal and the potential legal penalties of these acts. “Wrongs,” however, have a more flexible definition. Even if someone isn’t charged with a crime, they could still be sued for damages if they have inflicted injury or losses on others.

Right to An Attorney

In criminal court, all parties have the right to an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford one, an attorney will be provided by the state or federal government (depending on who is prosecuting the case). However, in a civil case, it is the responsibility of both the plaintiff and the defendant to hire and compensate their own representatives. This means that the economic burden of a civil case is often significantly higher for both parties.

Burden of Proof

In order to be convicted of a crime, the prosecutors must provide proof that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecutor must have definitive evidence that the defendant committed a crime, or the jury will not rule in their favor. The requirements of a civil case are less stringent, particularly because these cases are often settled outside of court between the two parties.

Who Initiates the Suit

In a civil case, the victim files a lawsuit against the defendant. The victim is considered the plaintiff and is responsible for establishing the defendant’s liability for their injuries. However, in a criminal case, the victim will not be required to initiate a suit. Instead, the government files criminal action against the accused (even if there are immediately affected victims). 

Presence of Victim

Not all criminal activity has a victim. While criminal activity can affect specific individuals, in many cases, activities are considered criminal for presenting a risk to society in general. For example, defendants could be charged with crimes such as tax evasion or drug trafficking without a direct victim. However, civil cases are always between an injured person (the plaintiff of the case) and those responsible for their injuries (the defendant).

Payment of Damages

Is the plaintiff seeking economic compensation for their losses? If so, they are likely to file a civil suit to seek compensation for their economic and non-economic losses. Victims may receive some restitution in a criminal case, but the primary focus of a criminal trial is to ascertain whether or not the defendant has committed a crime and what the penalty should be. In comparison, the primary function of a civil suit is to seek full compensation for physical, financial, and emotional losses. 

Who Decides the Case

In a criminal case, the results of the trial are decided by a judge and jury. Defendants in a criminal trial have the right to be tried by a jury of their peers and present their case before a judge. Because no one is tried for a crime in a civil trial, the case can be settled without being presented before a judge and jury. However, failure to settle outside of court will potentially result in a formal trial.

Out-of-Court Settlement

If a criminal case is filed, it must go to trial. Civil cases, however, are often settled outside of court to avoid the length and expense of a civil trial. Outside settlements are much more common in civil cases. However, there are times civil cases do go to trial. In civil trials, a judge and jury decide the total amount of damages awarded to the plaintiff. 

Can the Same Crime be Tried in Both Civil and Criminal Court?

Yes, the same case can undergo both civil and criminal proceedings. For example, if a person has committed a criminal act, they will be prosecuted by the government, but the person or persons who have been individually wronged can still file their own civil suits. Each person who has suffered a “wrong” (such as a personal injury) can file an individual suit against the defendant. It isn’t common for a case to be tried in both courts. However, if a criminal case is dismissed, victims will likely pursue a civil case to seek compensation for damages.

Can I Use the Same Lawyer for Both Civil Trials and Criminal Trials?

Whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, finding the right attorney to represent you is the most important task you must complete before the case goes to trial. However, if the cases go to both criminal and civil court, do you need to find a second attorney? In short, no; your attorney can represent you effectively in both civil and criminal trials. In fact, their familiarity with the overall case can help them to see where the civil and criminal cases intersect and will help them to represent you more effectively.

Legal Resources for Defendants

People facing criminal charges deserve to be aware of the full extent of their legal rights. If you have been accused of a crime or are being sued in civil court, you will need the advice of a qualified defense attorney to protect your best interests. The following resources can help you find legal representation or advice to help you navigate an upcoming civil or criminal trial.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) is an organization dedicated to “enhancing the capacity of the criminal defense bar to safeguard fundamental constitutional rights.” While NACDL is not a nonprofit charity and cannot offer legal advice itself, they are connected with a network of practicing attorneys nationwide. Attorneys belonging to NACDL are world-renowned for their skills in defending their clients. Use the Find a Lawyer directory to find an NACDL affiliated attorney near you. In addition to searching by location, you can also search for attorneys with specific defense practice areas. 

Department of Justice Directory

Quality defense attorneys can be incredibly expensive. If you are facing criminal charges but cannot afford quality representation, there are various attorneys nationwide that offer their services for free (pro bono) or at a low cost. Finding these attorneys yourself can be difficult; luckily, the U.S. Department of Justice offers a free-to-use directory of pro bono attorneys listed by state or territory. This tool will allow you to find a list of potential defense attorneys in your state.

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