Inside courtrooms around the nation, there are two distinct types of law being heard by judges and juries. One is criminal, the other civil. Most people are familiar with the way criminal law works due to the high level of exposure it gets on TV and in works of fiction. Civil law doesn’t get as much exposure. Consequently, some people are very surprised at the differences between the two.

Here are five major differences between civil and criminal law.

  1. Purpose

Civil law focuses on disputes that occur between individuals. A civil action is triggered when a private individual, the plaintiff, sues another individual, the defendant. Best Criminal lawyer focuses on offenses against the community or society as a whole. Murder, for example, involves one person killing another, but it is deemed a threat to the community as well. That is why all criminal prosecutions are taken by the state.

  1. Punishment

If a defendant is found guilty in a criminal case, he or she faces one of the three types of punishment: incarceration, fines, or, in rare, exceptional cases, the death penalty. In civil cases, a defendant can never be incarcerated or executed. The defendant can be made to reimburse the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant’s actions or lack of actions.

  1. Burden of Proof

In criminal cases, defendants are always considered innocent until proven guilty. That places the burden of proof on the state. The state must prove the defendant’s guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The defendant has no legal obligation to prove his innocence. In civil cases, the initial burden of proof is with the plaintiff. However, in some circumstances, the burden of proof can shift to the defendant to prove his/her innocence. The burden of proof in civil cases is whether the judge or jury believes that there is more than a 50% probability that the defendant was negligent in causing the plaintiff’s injury.

  1. Constitutional protections

Criminal defendants are protected by an array of protections guaranteed by the Constitution. These include protections against illegal search and seizure, double jeopardy, and being compelled to testify against one’s self. Defendants also have rights to a speedy trial and the assistance of counsel. Civil defendants don’t have these protections. There are protections in place within civil law, but they are not generally backed by the Constitution.

  1. Judges and juries

In almost all criminal cases, the defendant has the right to a jury trial. The defendant can request a bench trial where a judge would make any decisions, but this is uncommon. In civil cases, juries are only used in certain types of cases, and usually only under specific circumstances. So, most civil cases are decided exclusively by the judge.

While civil and criminal law are distinctly different, sometimes a single action can trigger both. For example, a drunk driver who caused an accident will face criminal charges and could be hit with civil suits from anyone he or she injured.

It is always important and advisable to obtain qualified, experienced legal counsel when you need it.