The difference between civil & criminal court

Written by michelle strait
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The difference between civil & criminal court
Civil and criminal court cases rarely overlap. (Justice image by MVit from

The federal court system and individual state court systems comprise the U.S. judicial system. According to the U.S. Courts website, each court system hears certain types of cases. The systems occasionally interact, but most cases are resolved without reaching the federal level. Most court cases take place in a state's civil or criminal courts.

Civil Court

Cases appearing in civil court typically involve disputes between private parties. For example, If a contractor fails to honour an agreement, you can sue him in civil court.

Criminal Court

Criminal court is for cases involving crimes, such as selling illegal drugs or committing murder. According to the Idaho Third Judicial District Court website, a criminal case is one in which an individual is accused of actions potentially threatening to society. These criminal acts are classified as misdemeanours or felonies. The punishment for a misdemeanour may be a fine or a few days in jail. Individuals found guilty of a felony may be sent to prison.


The government initiates criminal court cases. Law enforcement officials work with the prosecutor's office to prepare the case. The prosecutor decides whether to bring a criminal case. A civil case is normally a dispute between private parties. All it takes for a civil case to begin is for one of them to file a complaint with the court.


A judge or a jury can determine the outcome of civil court case. In many civil court proceedings, though, there is no jury involved. For instance, a judge can grant a divorce without any input from a jury. A civil case might occasionally require a jury, such as when a monetary award is at stake. Although a person accused of a crime has a right to a trial by a jury, he can waive that right and be tried by a judge, which is known as a bench trial.


Some cases involve civil and criminal courts. For instance, if you kill someone while driving drunk, you may be charged with a crime and appear in criminal court. The deceased person's family can also seek damages from you by bringing a lawsuit in a civil court.

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