Differences between civil court & criminal court

Updated July 19, 2017

Civil and criminal courts fulfil different roles in implementing justice. Civil courts deal with a variety of cases in which the law must be consulted but no crime has been committed. By contrast, criminal courts hear cases that pertain to allegations of criminal activity by one or more individuals. A variety of other differences in procedure exist between these two types of courts.

Types of Cases

In civil court, most civil cases are family cases, juvenile cases, disputes in housing contracts, small claims cases and probate cases. In criminal court, criminal cases include any case in which an alleged crime has occurred. These cases include allegations of drug crime, gang crime, hate crime, organised crime, public order offences, terrorism, human trafficking and violent crime.


In civil court, the alleged victim or victims in a civil case may seek legal counsel in developing and filing a case against a defendant. In criminal court, a prosecutor may choose to file or not to file a criminal case regardless of the wishes of the alleged injured party.


In civil court, those convicted of violations of civil law may be forced to reimburse plaintiffs for damages or give up personal property. They are never incarcerated. However, in criminal court, those convicted of crimes may be punished with fines, jail time, or even the death penalty.

Rights of Defendants

Civil court defendants are required to give relevant information to opposing attorneys and occasionally provide documentation that is not admissible in trial. Civil court defendants are not protected by laws prohibiting double jeopardy but may only be tried once for the impacts of a single event. Defendants are required to give testimony upon request and may be jailed for contempt of court. They are provided with government-provided representation. Finally, defendants are entitled to a jury trial only in certain cases.

In criminal court, defendants are protected against all ex post facto law, unreasonable searches, double jeopardy, compelled self-incrimination, excessively delayed trials, and government-provided counsel. Defendants are almost always entitled to be tried by a jury.

Burden of Proof

In civil court, defendants may be convicted if a "preponderance of evidence" (more than 50 per cent) suggests they are guilty. In criminal court, defendants may only be convicted if evidence suggests they are guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Based in New York City, Jeremy Ruch has been a writer since 2010. He has been published in the university newspaper, "The Chronicle," and currently writes how-to articles, specializing in subjects pertaining to politics and law. He was an editorial page editor for his high school paper. He attends Duke University and is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts.