Sunday, January 16, 2011

Differences between Civil and Criminal Litigation

 General court litigation is split into two types – criminal and civil.  The terms, rules and penalties depend on whether the wrong involved rises to the level of a crime.

  Crimes are matters where there is a potential loss of liberty – i.e. jail or prison. Civil cases concern money damages or a court directive to take some action. The loser in a civil case doesn’t go to jail after trial. (Do you remember from your high school history class that there are no debtors’ prisons in the U.S.A.?)

 With the potential loss of liberty, society demands that the highest burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) be met.  In civil cases, the general burden is the lesser preponderance of the evidence standard (more likely than not).

In criminal law, you have a prosecuting attorney on one side and a defense attorney on the other. In the civil context, there is still a defense attorney. But, the attorney for the party bringing the case is called the plaintiff’s counsel.  In a criminal context, a defendant is found “guilty” and is “convicted” while a civil defendant is found “liable.”

While the differences can be confusing, I think it makes sense to people if they remember that American justice system reflects societies’ determination that the potential loss of liberty is much more serious than the potential loss of money or other property.

Michigan Legal Intelligence is authored by W. Jay Brown, a Midland Michigan based civil litigation attorney. The foregoing is intended to be for general information purposes only and is not intended to be specific legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between W. Jay Brown PLC and you. Individuals with legal issues are advised to consult an attorney of your own choosing for advice specific to your situation.


  1. Very interesting and valuable information regarding the differences between civil and criminal litigation.
    Thanks for making us aware of it.

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