The Law Center

Comparing Civil and Criminal Justice for Victims of Crime

How does the civil justice system compare and contrast to the criminal justice system?  Both play important roles for crime victims.  Victims don’t have to choose to go through one or the other, they can do both.  Both systems serve different purposes and functions so a victim has a better chance of being made whole by entering both, if possible.

First issue of comparison:  who has control of the case?  In the criminal system, the state or government is in control.  The government pays and controls the criminal attorney (called the district attorney, DA, or prosecutor).  He/she makes the decisions, and is the party of interest.  On the legal caption, its “The State” or “The People” or “The Commonwealth vs. The Defendant.”  The victim is considered a witness rather than a party and doesn’t have any authority, control, decision-making ability, or right to information in the criminal system.  Although the victim is supposed to be considered, he/she doesn’t have to be. 

The primary issue isn’t the victim, it’s the defendant. The concern is punishing and/or rehabilitating the defendant so he/she isn’t a menace to society. 

In contrast, in a civil system, the victim is in control, retains the attorney, is entitled to much more information, and is the party listed on the caption.  The victim is the focus and controls the outcome of the case; not the state or any other third party.

Second issue:  what’s at risk for the defendant, and what can be gained by the Plaintiff?  In criminal Court, the defendant can lose his/her liberty and can potentially face incarceration for the purpose of punishing and/or rehabilitating the defendant.  Whereas in a civil case, the issue is only how much money the defendant has to pay without a risk of freedom or liberty.  Civil court is interested in making the plaintiff whole with little interest in punishing or rehabilitating the defendant.

In criminal court, the crime victim can only get restitution, i.e. out of pocket expenses, and the Judge may or may not order the defendant to reimburse the victim in criminal court, but  doesn’t have to.  In civil court, the whole purpose of the case is so the plaintiff can get money for all consequential damages such as wage loss, pain and suffering, and money to punish the Defendant.

Third issue:  how difficult is it for the prosecution or plaintiff to win?  Stated in another way, what is the burden of proof on the prosecution or plaintiff?  In criminal case, it’s the highest burden of proof known the law – beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s like requiring the jury to be about 95 percent sure the prosecution is correct, and the defendant is given a presumption of innocence.  The reason for the high burden is society heavily values a person’s freedom so we’re not going to incarcerate the defendant unless we’re sure. 

Whereas in civil court, we only need to be 51% sure that the plaintiff is right, there is no presumption of innocence for the Defendant, and the defendant has no constitutional rights.  In civil court, it’s much easier because it’s not about taking away someone’s liberty.   

Fourth issue:  who are the parties?  In the criminal justice system, it will always the same: the state versus the defendant.  In contrast, in a civil case, there can be different plaintiffs other than the victim, and can be different defendants than the criminal. The plaintiff can be family members, survivors of a dead victim, or adults who are responsible for the victim.  The defendant can be the criminal, individuals who assisted the criminal, or some other people or companies whose negligence permitted the crime to happen.

If you or someone you love has been a victim of crime, click the “Request Consultation” button for a free case evaluation.