What is the difference between Civil and Criminal Litigation?

What is the difference between Civil and Criminal Litigation?

Having done some public defense work, I have often been told by defendants “don’t worry, the other party isn’t pressing charges.

I would then have to explain to the defendant that the plaintiff in their matter was not the injured party, but was in fact the State in which the incident occurred.


A civil lawsuit and a criminal prosecution are two distinct legal processes that have different goals, procedures, and outcomes. The main difference between the two is that a civil lawsuit involves a dispute between two or more parties over a legal matter, such as a breach of contract or a personal injury, while a criminal prosecution is a legal action taken by the state or federal government against an individual accused of committing a crime.


For example; let’s suppose someone crashes into you in their car while they are driving under the influence of an intoxicating substance. It is likely that they are both going to be sued by you AND prosecuted by the State in which they committed the offense.


Here are some key differences between civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions:


Parties Involved

In a civil lawsuit, the parties involved are usually individuals, businesses, or organizations that are seeking to resolve a dispute. The plaintiff is the party who initiates the lawsuit, while the defendant is the party who is being sued. In a criminal prosecution, the parties involved are the government (either state or federal) and the individual accused of committing a crime.


Burden of Proof

In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden of proving their case by a preponderance of the evidence, which means they must show that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable for the damages claimed. In a criminal prosecution, the burden of proof is much higher, as the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the evidence presented must be so strong that there is no other reasonable explanation for the defendant's guilt.



The purpose of a civil lawsuit is to provide a means for individuals to resolve disputes and seek compensation for damages caused by another party. The outcome of a civil lawsuit is usually a monetary award or some other form of relief, such as an injunction. In a criminal prosecution, the purpose is to hold an individual accountable for a crime committed against society. The outcome of a criminal prosecution is usually a sentence, such as imprisonment or fines, that is intended to punish the defendant for their actions.


Legal Representation

In a civil lawsuit, the parties involved are usually represented by attorneys who advocate for their client's interests. In a criminal prosecution, the defendant has the right to an attorney to represent them, and if they cannot afford one, the government must provide one for them. The government is represented by a prosecutor who presents the case against the defendant.


Jury Trials

In a civil lawsuit, either party can request a trial by jury. If a jury trial is granted, the jury will decide the outcome of the case based on the evidence presented. In a criminal prosecution, the defendant has the right to a trial by jury, and if they choose to exercise that right, a jury will decide whether they are guilty or not guilty of the charges against them.


In summary, civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions are two different legal processes with distinct goals, procedures, and outcomes. While both involve the resolution of legal disputes, civil lawsuits focus on compensating the injured party, while criminal prosecutions focus on punishing the guilty party for crimes committed against society. Just because a defendant is being prosecuted by the State or Federal government does not mean you do not need to bring suit. The government’s goal is NOT to make you whole, but rather to punish the offender.