We often get calls from people seeking civil legal services who, understandably, do not necessarily understand this difference between civil and criminal law. While some criminal defense lawyers may also be civil lawyers, the two areas of law are vastly different. In this blog, we seek to provide some clarification as to the difference in these two categories.
Like all of our blogs, this blog is intended for generally informational purposes only and not as a substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense attorney.
Before we get started, it is important to note that there may be overlap between civil and criminal law (for example, a person may be charged with a crime and sued civilly for the same action).
Criminal Versus Civil – Overview
Criminal law involves alleged violations of statutes, or criminal common law. Regarding statutory law, federal, state, and municipal criminal laws are codified in statutes (for example, North Carolina General Statutes). When a person is accused of violating a criminal law, they are charged with a specific crime pursuant to a specific statute or common law.
On the other hand, civil matters involve disputes and other matters that fall under the wide umbrella of civil law. Some examples are: personal injury, contract disputes, family law (e.g., child custody, child support, alimony)
Title of the Action
Civil actions are generally referred to as lawsuits, disputes, or civil actions. On the other hand, criminal actions are typically referred to as charges.
In a civil action, the two parties are Plaintiff(s) versus Defendant(s). In a criminal action, it is the Government versus the Defendant, (for example, “The State of North Carolina Versus John Doe, Defendant”). In a criminal case, the alleged victim, prosecuting witness, or otherwise aggrieved party does not have the authority to dismiss a criminal charge. They are not a party to the case, but rather just a witness in the State’s case against the defendant. Conversely, in a civil matter, the plaintiff does have the power to dismiss an action that they have filed.
A person may be arrested prior to being convicted of a crime, simply for being charged with crime. While they may remain in jail if they are unable to post bond, they are not generally issued a formal, state-mandated punishment until they are convicted. If a person is convicted of a crime, they are issued a sentence in accordance with the relevant state or federal guideline governing the crime. Depending on the crime, the person’s criminal history, and other factors, this penalty may include the following: active jail sentence, fines, community service, substance abuse treatment, supervised probation, unsupervised probation, etc.
Unless there is also a criminal law violation, alleged violations of civil laws or legal principals generally result in consequences such as financial penalties, cease and desist mandates, or an order to perform a specific action. For example, if you are sued for failing to uphold your end of a contract, you are not sent to jail if the plaintiff prevails. You may, however, be ordered to pay the plaintiff a specific dollar amount (for example).
One final note – if you wish to press charges against someone, a criminal defense lawyer is not typically the correct contact. A better bet would be law enforcement or your local magistrate’s office. A criminal lawyer would be the person who would defend the individual you wish to have charged.