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Four Ways that Civil and Criminal Law Differ

Civil and criminal law are two broad and separate entities of law.  While both types of law take place in the same courthouse, they have different goals. Civil law is designed to repay the victim with money. Criminal law is designed to punish a wrongdoer for engaging in an activity that society has deemed a crime, and to deter the wrongdoer from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Other differences include:


In civil law, the person or entity that initiates the lawsuit and is called the plaintiff. In criminal law, the district attorney, a government employee, initiates the lawsuit and is known as the prosecutor. In both situations, the entities that the claims are against are called defendants.

Type of Disputes

Civil cases are to resolve disputes between individuals or organizations.  A civil wrong is called a tort. In a criminal matter, an individual is prosecuted by the government for committing an act that is against the laws established by society, such as driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or committing a murder.


In a civil case, the defendant is either liable or not liable. If the defendant is liable, he is generally ordered to pay compensation to the plaintiff. In a criminal case, a defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is guilty, an appropriate punishment, such as jail time or probation, is determined by the court.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that based on the evidence presented, there can be no reasonable doubt. This is sometimes referred to as “to a moral certainty.” This high burden of proof goes along with the presumption that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty at trial.

The burden of proof in a civil trial in Oregon is a preponderance of the evidence, a much lesser burden than beyond reasonable doubt. Preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not. Each fact in a civil case is determined using this standard, including the ultimate decision concerning liability. The plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his case.

Examples of criminal law include burglary, assault, battery and murder, while civil law applies in cases of negligence and legal or medical malpractice.

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