The Key Differences Between Criminal Law & Civil Law

The Marble Team

The Key Differences Between Criminal Law & Civil Law

Criminal Law
| 5 min
8 minutes

Back in the mid-1990s, the whole of America was gripped by the trial of football superstar O.J. Simpson. In what was dubbed “The trial of the century,” O.J. received a “not guilty” verdict in the case of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman’s murders. Yet, in a civil lawsuit brought two years later, O.J. was liable for their wrongful deaths and was ordered to pay compensation.

As that famous case illustrates, there's a clear distinction between criminal and civil law. For starters, this demonstrates that civil cases require a lower level of proof. There are several other key differences, too, including the offenses covered, the severity of penalties and punishments, statutes of limitation, plus the fact that you’ll have a criminal record if you’re found guilty in a criminal court. 

Criminal law deals with more serious offenses that are typically judged in a court of law. Civil law is concerned with less severe transgressions and with the application of non-criminal law in areas like family, property, and employment.

If you’ve ever wondered how these two sides of the legal system differ in theory and in practice, keep reading. Some aspects of the law can be quite dry at times, but this subject area is certainly fascinating! 


The Definitions: What Makes A Case Criminal Or Civil?

One of the difficulties with defining what makes a case criminal or civil is that everyone seems to have a different answer. The fact that the two sometimes intertwine and overlap makes reaching a meaningful definition even harder. Harder, but not impossible!


Criminal Law

Criminal law concerns offenses committed by a person who breaks state or federal laws - someone who commits a crime, in other words. By definition, criminal law involves damage, harm, or injury caused to an individual, society in general, or the country itself. A corporation can be found guilty of a crime, although only its agents can commit those crimes.

Criminal law deals with serious felonies like murder, kidnapping, bank robbery, major fraud, and so on.

Civil Law

At the highest level, civil law is about disputes between one person, entity, or business. It deals with civil wrongs and civil matters. Although some civil disputes end up in the courts, it’s perfectly possible to resolve everything without using the legal authorities. Both parties may agree to a settlement between themselves or via their lawyers. Often, there are official laws, professional regulations, or widely accepted guidelines to help in this process.

Civil law deals with resolving disputes, less serious misdemeanors, and the consequences of unlawful conduct in areas like personal injury, property ownership, vandalism, wrongful termination, and so on. It also covers family matters like divorce, annulment of a marriage, and adoption. 

You’ll sometimes hear that an investigation is being upgraded from a civil case into a criminal prosecution, and that proves that criminal law is concerned with more serious matters than civil law. The opposite is also true: your criminal DUI charge might be dismissed on a technicality, for example, but you could still face a civil case for damages from the person whose car you hit.

Who & What Decides Whether A Case Is Criminal Or Civil?

In many cases, it’s evident that a criminal offense has been committed. The decision to file a criminal offense rests with the government or its agencies through the attorney general or state attorney. In general, the more serious the offense, the more likely it is to be considered a crime.

People often cite the degree of intent and negligence as the determining factors between a criminal and civil prosecution. The case of a person who falls asleep at the wheel and knocks someone over is very different from a driver who deliberately runs down a rival.

A civil case can be instigated by a private individual or corporation or by the government and its agencies.

Can A Criminal Case Be Handled In Civil Court and Vice Versa? 

While a case can be subject to civil and criminal proceedings, each hearing is held in the respective court. A criminal case can only be heard in a criminal court, and a civil case can only be heard in a civil court.

The judges in the two courts have very different powers. A criminal court judge can send you to jail, whereas a civil court judge can issue fines or judgments in areas like evictions, child custody, and alimony.

The Four Types of Civil Law

Contract, property, family, and personal injury/property damage law comprise four of the most critical types of civil legislation. Sometimes the areas overlap, for example, with a claim for personal injury in a workplace.


Contract law covers wherever there’s an agreement between two parties, either between individuals, companies, partners in a business, an employer and an employee, or borrower and a lender. 


Property law is concerned with property and land ownership, development, and landlord and tenants’ rights. It covers both residential and commercial transactions.


Family law covers anything and everything to do with children and domestic partnerships, including subjects like custody, divorce, legal separations, and so on.

Physical Injury/Property Damage

This area of the law is aimed at people who have suffered physical injury or damage to their property, caused intentionally or unintentionally by others.

How A Lawyer Can Help With Both

Whether your case involves criminal or civil law, a professional lawyer has the legal expertise, experience, and know-how that you need.

It’s a fact that nearly all civil law disputes are settled out of court, and a trusted lawyer can ensure that you reach a settlement that’s fair, robust, and legally enforceable.

In criminal cases, a specialist attorney can guide you through all process stages and make sure that you’re represented effectively in court.

Bottom Line

If you’re unsure whether to pursue a civil or criminal case or are personally involved in either, a free case assessment from the expert team at Marble can give you the clarity you need. As the O.J. Simpson trial proved, sometimes, a civil suit can be more effective than bringing a criminal case.

8 minutes
Dec 30, 2020
The Marble Team