Criminal Law vs. Civil Law: Definitions and Differences

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  • 00:00 Criminal Law vs. Civil Law
  • 1:30 Cause of Action
  • 3:02 Parties
  • 4:16 Burden of Proof
  • 5:38 Remedy
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

There are two main classifications of law. Criminal laws regulate crimes, or wrongs committed against the government. Civil laws regulate disputes between private parties. This lesson explains the main differences between criminal and civil law.

Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

Are you familiar with the O.J. Simpson case? O.J. was prosecuted for two counts of murder after the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife and her friend. That was a criminal case, meaning the case involved the government's prosecution of a crime. O.J. was famously acquitted of the murders. That means he was found not guilty.

But that was not the end of the story! The victims' families then sued O.J. in a wrongful death lawsuit. That was a civil case, meaning the case involved a legal dispute between private parties. O.J. was held civilly liable, meaning he was found to be legally responsible for the damage done to the other party. As a result, O.J. was ultimately ordered to pay over $30 million to the victims' families.

How can there be two cases for the same crime? Criminal and civil law are not mutually exclusive; both can be used for a single event. Although these two cases involved the same act and the same parties, the cases were handled very differently and had contrasting results.

Let's take a closer look at the differences between the criminal law and the civil law.

Cause of Action

Let's start by examining the two different causes of action. A cause of action is the legal basis, or claim, allowing one party to seek a court judgment against another.

O.J.'s first case was based on criminal law, which refers to a set of rules and regulations describing behaviors prohibited by the government. If you commit one of the behaviors, you risk prosecution. A prosecution is simply a legal cause of action in which someone is charged with a crime. Generally speaking, crimes are wrongs for which the government prescribes a legal punishment. We'll talk more about punishment in a little bit. Some well-known crimes, besides murder, include robbery, burglary, assault, and arson.

O.J.'s second case was based on civil law. When someone refers to a lawsuit, that person is talking about civil law. This type of law deals with private rights and remedies by governing disputes between individuals, groups, and organizations.

Some well-known civil claims include contract disputes, personal injury claims, property disputes, civil rights violations, and class action matters.


Criminal and civil cases have different parties. The parties are the people, or entities, involved in the court case.

O.J.'s criminal case is entitled People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. California is a party and initiated the prosecution. Note that the government prosecutes crimes. The crime victim is not a party to the criminal case because crimes are considered to be wrongs committed against society as a whole. For example, murder puts the community in fear and undermines public confidence. It's therefore in society's best interest to prevent violence and punish wrongdoers in order to promote overall peace.

The person charged with the crime is known as the defendant. In a civil case, the person being sued is also known as the defendant. But that's where the similarities end. The party initiating a civil case is known as the plaintiff. O.J.'s civil case is entitled Fredric Goldman and Kimberly Erin Goldman v. Orenthal James Simpson. The Goldmans are the plaintiffs.

Burden of Proof

Criminal and civil cases also differ in the burden of proof. A burden of proof is the minimum duty the initiating party must meet in proving his or her case. It's the obligation to substantiate the case.

In a criminal case, the prosecution's burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to secure a guilty verdict for the defendant, the government must prove its case to the judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This generally means a real doubt, based upon reason and common sense, after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence. Though this does not mean 'beyond a shadow of a doubt,' it is meant to be the highest burden of proof in the U.S. legal system.

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