How is a Civil Case Different from a Criminal Case?

by | May 26, 2021

Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases usually involve conduct that is considered harmful to society.  An individual or organization can file a civil case but not a criminal case. So, the processes of suing for breach of contract and filing a robbery case are different because one is a civil case and the other is a criminal case. 

Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

A civil case is not a criminal case and vice versa. Here are the major differences between the two.

In a civil lawsuit who takes the case to court?

A private party, that is, an individual or an organization, files a civil case in a court of law. The private party has control over whether the case is pursued or dropped. In a civil case, the party filing the case is called the plaintiff while the person being sued is called the defendant. Examples of civil cases include suits dealing with personal injury, landlord-tenant disputes, and divorce proceedings.

The government, through the prosecutor, files a criminal case. The prosecutor has control over whether the case is pursued or dropped. In a criminal case, the person charged with a crime is called a suspect and the prosecutor, representing the government—not the actual victim of the crime—will file the case. Examples of criminal cases include murder, drunk driving, arson, and the sale of illegal drugs.

In short, you could say that in a civil case, the “victim” brings the case to court. However, for a criminal case only the prosecutor, not the victim, may file the case. 

What’s the reason for the case?

Civil cases typically revolve around the plaintiff’s injury, loss suffered, or rights violated and often involve negligent conduct. Criminal cases focus on offenses committed against the state and usually involve intent.

What are the governing codes and statutes?

Official documents, such as the Professions and Occupations, the Health and Safety Code and other government rules and regulations, outline the guidelines for civil cases. Meanwhile, the Penal Code governs criminal cases.

Which courts have jurisdiction?

In Michigan, the district court where the incident occurred or where the defendant lives handles civil cases claiming for $25,000 or less. The circuit court handles cases with claims of more than $25,000, while the small claims division of a district court handles suits for $6,500 or less. A probate court handles all disputes about estate, trust, guardianship, or conservatorship regardless of the amount involved, while the Family Division of a circuit court hears all family law-related disputes, with the exception of wills and guardianship. 

Who bears the burden of proof?

Burden of proof is the obligation to provide evidence or back up one’s claims. Criminal cases have a high burden of proof. In a criminal case, the government must provide evidence that proves the accused guilty of committing a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the standard is lower—usually based on the “preponderance of evidence,” which means the burden of proof is met when the party with the burden convinces the fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance that the plaintiff’s claim is true. evidence must prove plaintiff has proved her case more likely than not. 

How are the cases processed?

Most civil cases go through the same process, except for civil infractions, small claims, landlord-tenant, and land contract forfeiture cases. A plaintiff files the suit and pays the fees. The court issues a summons, serves both parties a notice of the complaint and schedules hearings. After the parties provide their answers and attend hearings, the court will enter a judgment. That is the end of a civil case, unless either party appeals the decision. 

Criminal cases involve a more complicated process. It begins when a crime is reported. The police will investigate, and a prosecutor will provide them with search and arrest warrants. After the arrest, the suspect will be arraigned, during which time the judge could also set bail (money or property given to the court in exchange of release), bond (a promise to come to court when required) and conditions of release. The judge can rule there is sufficient evidence to bind over the defendant. Ultimately, the defendant is tried before the trier of fact and found to be guilty or not guilty. An appeal can be filed if the defendant disagrees with a guilty ruling. If not found guilty, the defendant is free to go. 

How are the cases resolved?

Civil cases frequently don’t make it to trial. Studies have shown that more than 90% of civil suits are settled. If they aren’t settled, then the case is heard before the trier of fact, judge or jury. A civil case is tried by six jurors, and a verdict requires the agreement of five of them, unless the parties have agreed to something else. Punishment for civil cases doesn’t include prison, but, rather, usually include monetary awards and sometimes equitable relief such as injunctions.

Criminal cases can send the defendant (what we call the suspect upon the arraignment) to jail, probation, community service, fines, or a combination of these punishments, and in addition, pay restitution to financially harmed victims. 

Why Is It Important to Know the Differences Between a Civil and Criminal Case?

Filing a suit can be complicated. There are specific details or nuances that you must understand and take note of as each state has its own set of rules that must be followed exactly. Otherwise, it could affect the outcome of your case. For instance, the judge may dismiss your suit if you filed it in the wrong court. You would have to restart the filing process, which is both a hassle and an additional expense. Because of the complexity of a civil or criminal case—not to mention the amount of money involved—the assistance of a lawyer is very valuable.

With 25 years of experience prosecuting and defending against thousands of litigations, Steve Crane and his team will evaluate and determine when a properly worded phone call or letter is better than filing a suit, as arbitrations and negotiated resolutions to legal issues can be more effective and cost-efficient than going to court. If the issue results in the filing of a case, Crane Law will relentlessly assert your interests before a judge or jury. Either way, Steve Crane and his team are focused on achieving your goal. Schedule a free consultation with Crane Law today. Email or call us at (248) 963-6300.