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National Crime Victim Law Institute

What are the differences between the civil and criminal justice system?

April 15, 2010

There are a number of differences between the civil and criminal justice systems; some of the critical ones are identified here:

Criminal Justice System: In the criminal justice system, the crime victim reports a crime to law enforcement who may investigate. If an arrest is made following an investigation, and there is sufficient evidence to go forward, a prosecutor files charges against defendant and pursues prosecution. The act that caused the harm is known as a “crime” in the criminal justice system. Today the criminal justice system perceives crime to be committed against the state. This perception explains a lot about why the system works as it does. In the criminal case, the prosecutor is the attorney for all of the people of the state/jurisdiction, and does not act on behalf of the individual victim. The prosecutor controls all key decisions of the case, including whether to charge a defendant with a crime and what crime to charge, and whether to offer or accept a plea deal or go to trial. The penalties imposed if the defendant is found guilty can include incarceration/imprisonment, fines and forfeitures, probation, community services, and sometimes restitution to the individual victim. The burden of proof in criminal matters is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is much more difficult to achieve than the “preponderance of evidence” standard used in most civil cases.

Civil Justice System: Regardless of whether a criminal prosecution was undertaken, or whether defendant was found not guilty, crime victims may still be able to seek justice by filing a civil lawsuit against the person or persons the victim believes caused the victim harm. The civil justice system does not determine an offender’s guilt or innocence, but works to determine whether the offender is liable for the harm caused to the victim. In pursuing the civil lawsuit, the victim, who usually hires a private attorney, controls all of the key decisions of the case, including whether to accept a settlement offer or go to trial. The act that caused the harm is known as a “tort” in the civil justice system. In the civil case, the victim is seeking to be compensated (usually with money) for the damages that he or she suffered as a result of defendant’s tort. The amount of evidence needed to win in most civil cases (or what is known as the burden of proof) is a “preponderance of evidence.” This burden of proof essentially means that one side’s evidence must be more persuasive than the other; this is far lower than the burden necessary in a criminal case. Statutes, known as “statutes of limitation,” set time limits on how long you have to file a civil suit following the harm you suffer. These time limits vary from state to state. If a lawsuit is filed after expiration of the statute of limitations it will be dismissed as time-barred.