What is the difference between the criminal and civil legal systems?
The legal system has two parts: criminal and civil. A single event may involve the criminal system, civil system, or both. Each system has its own rules.
The criminal system begins when an event that involves people or property is reported to law enforcement (police). Law enforcement officers investigate what happened. Prosecutors (district attorneys or city attorneys) decide whether to file criminal charges against the person who may have committed a crime (called a defendant if charges are filed). Prosecutors file a criminal case on behalf of the government. The victim does not get to decide whether or not to file charges. If a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, the court sets the punishment (also called the sentence). The sentence is enforced by the corrections system (prison, jail, probation, parole, or community corrections).
To learn more about steps in the criminal legal system, click here.
The civil system deals with issues between people (such as divorce, broken contracts or arguments about property) as well as harm to people and property. Sometimes people refer to a civil case as a lawsuit or suing someone. In the civil system, the victim is the person who files a case (unlike the criminal system, where the prosecutor files charges on behalf of the government). When a victim files a civil case, there is no prosecutor. Usually, law enforcement and corrections officers are not involved in civil cases.
Sometimes victims are told by law enforcement or prosecutors that what happened to them was not a crime or cannot be proven as a crime. Even in those cases, victims may still have civil legal options.
To learn more about the civil system, click here.
To learn more about the difference between criminal and civil systems, please contact us.
This website gives information about the legal system, but does not give legal advice.