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Criminal Law vs. Civil Law: How are they Different?

Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

Several members of my family are involved in the legal system. My sister is a lawyer, and I have often called her to ask one question or another. Her response, however, is always the same. “I don’t know? I don’t practice that kind of law.” I thought all law was basically the same, but apparently, it’s not. So between civil and criminal law, what’s the difference?

Criminal law involves laws implemented to punish people who commit crimes against the state. This includes a crime committed against another person as well, but it is brought to trial by the state prosecutor. Criminal laws will vary based on the jurisdiction, meaning who has power over that particular area to make all legal decisions and judgments. In contrast, civil law is any non-criminal law that involves settling disputes between two parties where one party has failed to uphold a responsibility they owed the other.

What are the Types of Criminal Law

There are two main types of criminal law, a misdemeanor and a felony.

Misdemeanors are usually crimes that aren’t that serious and carry a lesser weight of punishment. Misdemeanor offenses include public intoxication, petty theft, simple assault, disorderly conduct, minor crimes, and violations. The penalty is generally something such as a fine, loss of privileges, or up to one year in prison.

The second type of criminal law is a felony. A felony is a serious criminal offense and can be punishable by death or over a year of imprisonment. These types of crimes include murder, manslaughter, burglary, battery, aggravated assault, tax evasion, fraud, kidnapping, blackmail, forgery, treason, and more.

Though there are many types of crimes in criminal law, they can be broken down into five main categories: crimes against a person, crimes again a property, inchoate crimes, statutory crimes, and financial crimes.

  • Crimes against a person are crimes committed against another person that causes mental or physical harm. These crimes are further broken down into either homicide or other violent crimes.
    • Homicide is any crime that causes death and can include first-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, or vehicular homicide.
    • Violent crimes are also severe and can include assault and battery, arson, child abuse, domestic abuse, kidnapping, rape, and statutory rape.
  • Crimes against property are any crime that interferes with the property of another person, which results in that person being deprived of using something they own or would enjoy. Usually, these are theft crimes such as burglary, larceny, robbery, shoplifting, and auto theft.
  • Inchoate Crimes are crimes that were begun but not completed and crimes that would have assisted in the commission of another crime. There are three types of offenses: attempt – a person commits an act intending to commit a crime; solicitation – a person asks another person to commit a crime for them; and conspiracy – an agreement between two or more parties with the intent of committing a criminal offense.
  • Statutory Crimes are violations of specific laws that have already been put into place by the state or federal government. The four main types of statutory crimes are alcohol-related crimes, drug crimes, traffic offenses, and white/financial collar crimes. There is a statute already in place concerning these crimes in hopes of deterring people from attempting them.
  • Financial Crimes, or “white collar” crimes as they are sometimes referred to, are crimes that involve things with money such as embezzlement, fraud, blackmail, tax evasion, money laundering, and cybercrime.

Related: Why is Cybercrime Law Important?

What are the Types of Civil Law

Types of Civil Law - Tort Law

Civil laws are where an individual or organization has failed to uphold an agreement or otherwise violated another persons’ rights or interests that necessitate the filing of a case. There are four different types of civil law: contract law, property law, family law, and tort law.

  • Contract Law – enforces agreements between individuals, businesses, or groups where money is exchanged for goods or services.
  • Property Law – oversees the different forms of ownership of personal property.
  • Family Law – involves issues related to families such as divorce, domestic abuse, child custody, adoption, and emancipation.
  • Tort Law – protects individuals and helps them to be compensated for those who injure through recklessness or negligence.

Related: What are the Different Types of Civil Law?

What Is the Process of Charging Someone With a Criminal Offense?

There are three ways that criminal charges are brought against someone.

  1. A grand jury votes on an indictment – a formal accusation that a person committed a serious crime.
  2. The prosecuting attorney files an “information” alleging that a person committed a crime.
  3. A police officer issues a citation such as for a traffic offense.

The charge will contain all pertinent information such as the date, time, and place where the criminal activity occurred, the people involved in the alleged crime, and the details of what happened.

Once the prosecuting attorney decides to bring the charge before the grand jury, an indictment is issued, and the alleged criminal is given formal notice that they are believed to have committed a crime.

With felony charges, the prosecutor then presents the case before a grand jury (an impartial group of citizens). Witnesses are called, evidence is presented, and the case is outlined to the jury. After listening to the prosecutor’s case, the jury then votes privately on if they believe there is enough evidence to charge the person with the crime.

If they decide there is enough evidence, the case then goes to court. The defendant can either hire an attorney or be provided with a government-appointed attorney called a public defender. The defense attorney will help the defendant understand the law, understand the facts of the case, and will represent the defendant just as the prosecutor represents the government.

Related: What are the Different Types of Evidence in Law?

What Is the Process for Bringing a Civil Lawsuit Against a Party or Business?

In a civil case, the plaintiff, the person initiating the report, files a complaint against the defendant based on the breach of a contract in order to recover some type of damages such as money.

The first step the plaintiff will take is to talk to an attorney to see if they have a valid case. If the attorney says there is a good case, then the plaintiff will file a complaint with the court and serve the defendant a copy of the complaint. The complaint describes the plaintiff’s damages, explains what the defendant did to cause them harm, and asks the court to help with compensation. The defendant then answers the complaint or files a counter-claim.

Next, both the plaintiff and the defendant gather as much information as possible to present each of their sides to the case. Sometimes both parties can reach an agreement outside of court through mediation or negotiation. If both parties cannot resolve the matter outside of court, then the next stage is to go to trial.

Once in court, both parties will describe their side of the story and present any evidence they’ve obtained. Lawyers for both sides will either be arguing their party’s side to a jury or a judge, beginning with an opening statement from the plaintiff. Next, witnesses, if any, are called, and both sides are presented. Then both the plaintiff and defendant give their closing statements.

After the closing statements of both parties, either the judge or jury will announce a verdict. If either party disagrees with the verdict, they can appeal the decision before an appellate court. If the appellate court finds any discrepancies, they can reverse the ruling, order a new trial, and the process begins again.

Related: Arbitration vs. Mediation vs. Litigation: What’s the Difference?

Can a Civil Case and Criminal Case Overlap?

There can be instances where a crime committed requires both a criminal case and a civil suit. For example, the government can bring a case against someone who assaulted another person and find the defendant guilty. This would be a criminal case. Then, the injured party can take civil action against the person who assaulted them to recover compensation for the pain and suffering they endured.

The same goes for a homicide where a person is found guilty of murder in a criminal court and then is charged with a civil suit for wrongful death.

Who Makes More Money, a Civil Attorney or a Criminal Attorney?

According to, In the United States a civil litigation lawyer averages $130,513 a year. However, in general, the range falls between $111,344 and $149,361.

The criminal defense lawyer averages $92,140 a year, but the salary range generally falls between $78,753 and $106,012.

The average prosecuting attorney’s salary is $84,557, but the range is typically between $77,255 and $95,144 a year.

For all three types of attorneys, the salary range can depend upon such things as education, certifications, additional skills, and the number of years in practice.

Overall it seems that a civil attorney has the potential to make more money than a prosecuting attorney or criminal lawyer.

This summarizes the difference between criminal law and civil law. A good point to note when thinking about the differences is that criminal law focuses on punishing the defender and keeping them from committing similar acts in the future. Civil law focuses on restoring the lives of the victims.


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