3 Differences Between Civil Law and Criminal Law

Gavel and notepad

Justice studies is a broad field with many career paths. If you plan to earn a degree in Justice Studies, you may be interested in focusing on a career in criminal or civil law. Both options offer rewarding career opportunities that would allow you to make positive contributions to your community.

1. Definitions

Criminal laws at the local, state and federal level define criminal activities and establish legal punishments for those convicted of crimes like arson, assault and theft. Criminal law cases are only conducted through the criminal court system.

In contrast, civil laws deal with the private rights of individuals. Civil laws are applied when an individual has had his or her rights violated or when individuals have disputes with other individuals or organizations. Some matters of civil law are handled outside a court of law, such as through a third-party mediator. Alternatively, lawsuits may be resolved through a non-criminal trial.

2. Burden of Proof

Criminal courts and civil courts have different standards. In a criminal court, a defendant is either acquitted or found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the responsibility of the state or federal government to prove that the defendant undoubtedly committed the crime.

In a civil court, a plaintiff brings a lawsuit against a defendant. The burden of proof falls on the plaintiff, who must prove that it is more likely the defendant was responsible for the problem than not. If a jury decides that a defendant was responsible, that defendant is said to be liable rather than guilty.

3. Legal Penalties

In a criminal case, a judge sentences a defendant who is found guilty by a jury. The judge must follow the sentencing guidelines established by current criminal law. Within those sentencing guidelines, the judge has some discretion. Legal penalties in a criminal case may include incarceration, probation and fines.

In a civil case, a defendant who is found liable for an act of wrongdoing can be ordered by the jury to pay damages (financial compensation) to the plaintiff. Compensation can be awarded for quantifiable losses such as medical bills, or for subjective losses such as pain and suffering. Sometimes, a jury may award additional punitive damages.

At Grand Canyon University, you can explore both civil and criminal law when you enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies program. Offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, this program provides an in-depth look at public policy, threat assessment and criminal behavioral while encouraging students to build their critical thinking and communication skills. To learn more, visit our website or click on the Request More Information at the top of the page.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.