Civil Vs. Criminal Justice

November 29, 2017

Civil vs. Criminal Justice

By: Elizabeth Terrell, Summer Law Clerk

Many people do not realize there are two types of litigation in the United States: the civil legal system and the criminal legal system. Each system serves a specific purpose and functions in a distinct way. The civil legal system is used to protect and/or compensate an individual, while the criminal legal system is used to prosecute crimes for the benefit and protection of the public.

The initiator of the litigation is the first difference between the civil and criminal legal systems. In civil proceedings, the Plaintiff/Petitioner brings the case against the perpetrator, called the Defendant/Respondent. During litigation, the Plaintiff/Petitioner may decide when to sue, what to sue for, and when to settle the case. On the other hand, in criminal proceedings, the State, by the Prosecutor (on behalf of the public), initiates the proceedings. The State determines who to pursue, for what crimes, and can petition the court for specific punishments for the Defendant.

Another difference between the civil and criminal legal systems is the type of remedies available. In the civil legal system, the Petitioner can request damages, such as money, for the court to make a decision on someone’s rights, such as in paternity cases, or for the court to order the Respondent to perform certain activities or refrain from performing activities. For example, a victim of domestic violence or stalking can request the Court, as a Petitioner in a civil protection order case, to prohibit the Respondent from contacting or communicating with the Petitioner.

In the criminal legal system, however, the remedies available benefit not only the victim, but the public at large. The victim has the benefit of knowing the Defendant received punishment for their actions, and may receive other remedies through restitution from the Defendant. However, the public, through the State, also receives the benefit of punishment in a criminal case by imprisonment, fining, probation, or community service imposed on the Defendant. These punishments are intended to deter criminal activity and protect the public in general, not just the victim. Incarcerating the individual may discourage the criminal from repeating their crimes and the penalties imposed may help maintain the stability of society.

A final major difference between the civil and criminal legal systems is procedural. The standards of proof utilized in each system is vastly different. In criminal cases, the State must prove that the Defendant committed the act “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the only standard used in criminal litigation. By this standard, the State must prove that there is no other logical explanation which can be derived from the facts, other than that the defendant committed the crime. In civil cases, however, there are several distinct burdens of proof required to find in favor of the Plaintiff/Petitioner. The varying standards of evidence in a civil case are “preponderance of the evidence,” “substantial evidence,” and “clear and convincing evidence,” all of which are much lower standards than the criminal standard of proof. The Plaintiff/Petitioner in civil cases must show that it was either “highly probable” that the Defendant/Respondent committed the act, or that the Respondent committed the act “more likely than not,” depending on which of the standards is required.

The CVHR uses the civil legal system to help protect victims, representing them in protection order matters and paternity matters. Although the CVHR does not actively participate in the criminal system, we encourage our victims to seek protection by means of both civil remedies and via the State through the criminal system, whenever possible.