Civil vs Criminal

The difference between civil and criminal law is ultimately a question of what each is trying to achieve. The aim of a civil trial is to resolve unfair situations between individuals and/or corporations by monetary compensation. A criminal trial on the other hand, aims to punish someone who is found guilty of causing a particular harm.

Differences in the process flow from this distinction:

  • the parties taking part in the trial are different in the UK. A criminal trial always opposes the prosecution, who accuses someone of a particular crime, and the accused who will defend himself, unless he pleads guilty. A civil trial opposes two individuals and/or corporations, one of which will be accusing the other of some wrongdoing and sometimes both accusing each other.
  • the running of the trial also works out differently. For example, the burden of proof is higher in criminal trials. This is because the consequences are a lot more serious if you are found guilty of a crime (prison or fine, but also the label ‘criminal’) and so the prosecution has to prove any point they’re making “beyond reasonable” doubt to the jury or the judges. In civil cases, because the consequences are less serious (relatively), the burden of proof is only “on the balance of probabilities”.

Although most legal issues are distinctly civil or criminal (eg a contractual dispute or a murder), civil and criminal trials can often be two sides of the same coin. In certain cases, a victim can bring a civil suit against their attacker for compensation, whether the attacker has indeed been convicted as a criminal. They’ll have to prove in the civil court that, on the balance of probability, the criminal act did happen. This is obviously a lot easier if a court has convicted the person accused, but can be done even if there was no trial, for example if the alleged attacker is dead or cannot be tried criminally.

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