A common misconception among the general public is that all cases are alike and that ultimately – someone at the end of a trial is going to be found guilty of some act. However, this is not the case. There are generally two distinct types of legal matters: (1) civil matters and (2) criminal matters. While many people understand what a criminal matter is – they sometimes lack an understanding as to civil matters. What is a civil matter you may wonder? It is a legal action involving the law of civil or private rights of individuals or entities. This category of legal action is very distinct from a criminal cause of action that involves crimes committed and their punishments.
Aside from the nature of these two legal actions – the parties to the legal actions also differ. In a criminal matter it is typically the state or federal government against an individual or entity who has committed a crime. In a civil matter, there are a number of actors who can be involved in a lawsuit. For example, a civil action could involve a private individual vs. another private individual – or the matter could involve a private individual vs. a city, a commission, a hospital, etc. The actors in a civil matter vary depending on the type of civil action is at play, whereas in criminal matters, the state or federal government will always be one party to the action.
Another important difference between these two types of matters is what is called the “burden of proof” at the trial of the matter. To put it simply, the burden of proof is essentially what it takes for a party to win a case. There are certain standards that accompany the burden of proof in a matter, and these standards must be met in order for a party to prevail. In criminal matters, the burden of proof is generally higher as criminal cases involve serious penalties against parties that can jeopardize one’s freedom, liberty and interests. Accordingly, in order for a party to be found guilty of a crime, it must be found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the party is guilty of committing a crime. In civil matters, there are different burdens of proof that may apply depending on the type of matter at hand. However, the most common standard in a civil matter is a “preponderance of the evidence.” A preponderance of the evidence can be defined as a party having shown that its version of facts, causes, damages, or fault is more likely than not the correct version. These distinctions between the burdens of proof in a criminal action v. a civil action are important to keep in mind as they vastly differ and will have a significant impact on the verdict in a matter While the above examples are not the only differences that exist between civil and criminal matters, they are a few of the most basic and important differences to keep in mind.