Difference between Civil and Criminal law

By: | Updated: Jan-30, 2018

Most people are so familiar with criminal law that its principles are often wrongfully applied to civil cases. These are different legal entities in which varying legal principles apply.

Summary Table

Civil LawCriminal Law
Offenders fined to compensate for damagesOffenders fined, imprisoned, or sentenced to death
Contract disputes, property lawsMurder, bank robbery, theft
Does not usually involve a juryA jury is required
Case filed by plaintiffCase filed by government


A breach of contract is covered by civil law

Civil law, in common law countries such as the United States, is defined as any law that is non-criminal in nature. In civil law, wrongful acts are penalized by the offender paying compensation or restitution to the plaintiff. Civil law offenders are not punished but are made to suffer harm that makes up for the wrong that has been committed.

Civil law deals with disputes between individuals, organizations, or individuals against organizations. Although civil laws vary depending on the jurisdiction, juries are rarely involved in civil cases. Civil law encompasses laws on civil wrongs (e.g. breach of trust, breach of contract), quasi-contracts, and property laws.

Incarceration is often a punishment for criminal offenses

Criminal law deals with criminal acts and the legal punishment of such offenses. It seeks to stabilize society by punishing criminal offenders and preventing them and others from committing similar undesirable acts. These are criminal acts that can threaten, jeopardize, and endanger the health, moral welfare, and safety of the people.

Criminal laws differ depending on the jurisdiction. Failure to abide by the rules of criminal law carries serious sanctions and consequences. The most serious crimes may be imposed with capital punishment in some jurisdictions. Although prohibited in most parts of the world, corporal or physical punishment is still imposed on criminal offenders. Incarceration in prisons and jails is also meted out, depending on the jurisdiction. The scope of criminal law is vast and is almost impossible to catalog in the most accurate manner. Some offenses considered to be “criminal” are as follows: murder, battery, assault, rape, trespassing, theft, burglary, extortion, fraud, and embezzlement. In some jurisdictions, association with a criminal act that is not actually carried out is covered by criminal law as well. These would be participatory offenses such as conspiracy, attempt, aiding, and abetting.

Civil vs Criminal Law

So what’s the difference between civil and criminal law? One important fact to remember is that these are distinct legal entities, particularly in the kind of punishment meted out to offenders. In civil law, an offender is usually fined or required to compensate for any damages caused by his/her wrongful act. If proven guilty, the defendant in a civil case pays the plaintiff for losses in restitution for the defendant’s wrong behavior. Criminal law covers criminal acts and punishment for such offenses. A guilty defendant in criminal law may be incarcerated in prison or jail, or pay fines to the government. In extreme cases, an offender may receive capital punishment. Civil law deals with cases involving disputes, breach of contract, and breach of trust, to name a few. A jury is rarely required in civil law proceedings, whereas a jury is necessary in a criminal court. Any person or corporation can file a lawsuit in civil law court and become the plaintiff. In criminal law, the case is filed by the government, called the prosecution.

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