Civil vs Criminal Law: the Differences You Need to Know

Civil vs Criminal Law

 The legal world can be an extremely confusing place with all the Latin words and phrases involved, the various rules, and trying to figure out why lawyers are yelling ‘Objection!’ in the courtroom.

Not to worry, we’re here to give you a quick crash course to the legal world basics in civil vs criminal law to make it a little more palatable. This means no need to spend hours watching Law & Order until you understand (though it is helpful!).

Keep reading to brush up on your legal knowledge or learn something completely new!

Civil vs Criminal Law: What’s What?

The law can be divided into two types of law civil law and criminal law.

Both types of law involve a courtroom, a judge, lawyers, and two sides call prosecution and defendant, but the similarities end there when it comes to civil vs criminal law.

Civil law is sometimes called private law, as its conducted between two parties in a dispute or settlement in or out of court. Whereas criminal law is sometimes called public law, as it involved the state or federal attorney prosecuting charges against an individual on behalf of the citizens/country.

Common Types of Civil Law

There are quite a few types of civil law out there, so we will stick to explaining the most common types for you to understand.

There are two ways civil law can go: in court or out of court.

In court you would see one person or entity suing another person or entity for a sum of money and/or a correction to the wrong that was done to them. Out of court, it could just be a civil lawyer practicing the law by issuing a real estate contract, settling employee compensation, or drafting and signing off on divorce papers.

Tort Law

Tort law is usually the most common type of civil lawsuit you will hear about.

It is when an individual sues another person or company for something that has wronged or injured them in some way. This can be for example you slipping and falling on someone’s property, or if you suffer an injury from a car accident.

In these situations, you’d see a personal injury lawyer handling the case to make sure that the hurt individual is getting the amount necessary to make up for the damage done. Of course it’s understandable that it won’t solve losses, but it is an option for individuals should they wish to pursue the option.

Contract Law

As the name states, contracts are involved in contract law.

You can see employment contract disputes, violations of terms and agreements, and even landlord/tenant disputes in this type of law. Basically, anything that someone or something has been agreed to whether written or verbal can be brought to court.

Contract law can also be something as simple as a lawyer drafting a legal agreement between two parties without the need to involve a court or judge.

For example, employees can enlist the help of a contract lawyer who’s familiar with employment law to go over a new work contract or settlement agreement to check that their are legally safe and getting a good deal. They’ll also be able to point out if a case can be made for either more settlement money, or a too restrictive contract.

Property Law

Property law will see individuals disputing things like land claims, undisclosed issues with newly purchased homes, and deeds for example. Property law will also have lawyers drafting home sale documents, purchase offers, and closing agreements.

Usually, property law, like contract law, will involve a lot of paperwork on the lawyers’ part. Drafting documents takes time and a meticulous eye to make sure that no important pieces are missing that could make the document void for either party.

Family Law

If a divorce or child custody agreement can’t be reached unanimously and with the help of lawyer mediation, the couple will typically end up before a judge who decides on the outcome.

Family lawyers will draft divorce papers and serve them, along with helping couples figure out a child custody agreement. They will also preside over adoption cases also either in or out of the court system and are called in for foster agreements as well.

Types of Criminal Law

In criminal law, there are two types of components that render something a criminal offense.

Mala in se in the Latin terms for an act of behavior that society deems illegal and inappropriate where a charge would be warranted for example murder, robbery, and rape. These types of crimes are generally considered violent crimes.

Mala prohibita, on the other hand, means an act or behavior that is against a law or statue for example tax fraud or copyright violations. Typically they are less violent crimes but crimes nonetheless.

Besides separating into the components, criminal law can be divided further into the types of charges available. These are classified by misdemeanors and felonies.


Misdemeanors are typically the less serious of the two types of criminal law charges, carrying a maximum sentence of one year or less. The types of crimes to be considered misdemeanors are traffic offenses like DUIs, theft charges, and drug possession charges.

Depending on the circumstances of the case, a judge may opt for no jail time and instead issue community service and fees to be paid.


Felonies on the other hand are made up of the more serious types of crimes.

These types of charges can hold up to a life sentence in prison and the death penalty in some states depending on the severity of the crime and the judges decision. These cases will involve murder in the first, second, or third degree, rape, grand larceny, and aggravated assault.

How Is Civil Law Different

As we mentioned before, civil law does not have to mean a case sees the inside of a courtroom. Most of the time, civil law cases are settled outside of court or are just your run of the mill paperwork drafted by the lawyer from whichever area you need them.

Civil law proceedings will also not involve a jury if it does go to the courtroom, and will rely on a single judge to make a ruling on the outcome.

Usually, people see civil law as the less glamourous of the legal system as they’re less shocking and generally low excitement. Shows like Judge Judy are a great example of civil law at work but of course, more ramped up to lure in the viewers and keep them entertained.

Generally, as most lawyers will tell you, civil law is time consuming and detailed paperwork the majority of the time with a few sprinkles of court cases in between. Typically as a civil lawyer, you will see your desk and clients more than you will a courtroom.

How Is Criminal Law Different

Depending on the severity of the charges and case there may be a choice between a hearing by judge or jury.

Typically, more serious charges will involve an impartial jury of twelve neutral and unbias citizens who will listen to the case and determine a verdict. The entire jury needs to be in unanimous agreement on the verdict or else a hung jury is announced.

A hung jury means the proceedings are called to a mistrial and there is the option of pursuing a new trial with a new jury or the prosecution can opt to drop charges. Generally, if the charges are serious enough the prosecution will rarely drop charges.

Criminal law is the type of law that receives the most public attention either through the media or through television. Now popular shows on Netflix like Making A Murderer and American Murder: The Family Next Door have created more demand for shocking criminal law documentaries.

This type of law has more intrigue and excitement as the shock value in the cases is quite high. Especially in the states where cameras are allowed in the courtroom, citizens can be a part of the whole criminal justice system experience from the comfort of their own couch. No wonder it’s got such pull!

Civil vs Criminal Law Explained

We hope that this deeper dive into explanations of civil vs criminal law will give you a better understanding of the legal world if ever you find yourself in any of these types of laws. It’s good practice as a citizen to be aware of the justice system where you live so that if you ever would have to enter it you’d know what is going on.

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About the Author: Kashif Raza

Kashif Raza is a graduate of New Jersey, where he played volleyball and annoyed a lot of professors. Now as Zubuz’s health, entertainment and Lifestyle Editor, he enjoys writing about delicious BBQ, outrageous style trends and all things Buzz worthy.