What are some differences between Civil Law and Criminal Law?

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There are a number of differences between civil law and criminal law.  Let us look at a few of the most important differences.

  • In criminal law, the plaintiff in a case is always the government.  Crimes are considered to be acts against the government.  In a civil case, anyone may be the plaintiff.
  • In criminal law, a person who is found guilty may be imprisoned as a punishment.  This is not possible in a civil case. 
  • Criminal law is made only by statute.  That is, a legislature has to pass a law making something a crime.  By contrast, civil law is also made by court decisions.  A court can change, for example, the law about what constitutes negligence, but it cannot change the law about what constitutes murder.
  • In order for a jury to convict, it must be unanimous and it must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  A jury in a civil case only needs to find that the “preponderance of evidence” shows the defendant is liable.  The jury does not need to be unanimous.
  • In addition, in a civil case, the defendant might be found partially liable.  In other words, an accident might be only partly the defendant’s fault.  A defendant in a criminal case is either completely guilty or completely innocent.
  • Finally, only the defendant can appeal in a criminal case.  In a civil case, either side may appeal.
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