Civil and Criminal Cases: Resolving Private vs. Public Wrongs - Diamond and Diamond Lawyers

Civil and Criminal Cases: Resolving Private vs. Public Wrongs


Civil cases and criminal cases each seek to right a wrong by using the courts, but other than that, the two types of cases are very different. Criminal cases, for instance, are brought by the government or the Crown against an individual, known as the defendant, accused of violating a law, such as the Criminal Code, prohibiting certain conduct or behaviour. The parties in a civil case are the plaintiff, the party seeking compensation, and one or more defendants. There are, however, other distinct differences between the two types of cases.

Purpose of each

The purpose of a criminal case is to punish the defendant for violating the law. Violating the criminal laws is an offence against society which is the reason criminal cases are brought in the name of the government as opposed to being brought in the name of the individual who was the victim of the criminal conduct. The penalties imposed at sentencing on the defendant in a criminal case could include imprisonment, fines, probation or community service.

Civil cases are brought to right a private wrong or harm. Civil cases include the following:

  • Breach of contract
  • Tort or personal injury
  • Medical malpractice
  • Divorce
  • Child custody

The plaintiff in a civil case has the burden of proving the defendant did something that caused the plaintiff to suffer harm. Punishment of the defendant is not the purpose of a civil case. The plaintiff files a lawsuit against the defendant asking for compensation to make him or her whole again, or the plaintiff might ask for an injunction to prevent the defendant from continuing an activity that is causing harm to the plaintiff.

Very different burdens of proof

Plaintiffs in civil cases must prove their claims by a balance of the probabilities showing it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the harm. The government has a more difficult burden of proof to secure a conviction of someone accused of committing a crime. The government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a much higher probability than plaintiffs in civil cases must face.

It is not uncommon for a criminal trial to end with the accused found to be not guilty only to see a civil case arising out of the same incident end with a finding of liability against the defendant. The much reported murder trial of O.J. Simpson in the U.S. ended with a jury verdict of not guilty, but the family of one of his victim’s sued Simpson in a civil case and won. The reason was the lower burden of proof in a civil case.

Civil and criminal cases start differently

A criminal case usually begins with the arrest of the person accused of the crime. Defendants taken into custody have the right to a hearing in front of a judge to determine if the person should be granted pre-trial release with or without bail or other conditions.

Civil cases begin when the lawyer for the plaintiff files a complaint with the court. The complaint is served on the defendant who must then file a statement of defence responding to the allegations raised in the complaint. Ultimately, the case will either be settled or go to trial.

Speak to an lawyer about your case

If you believe you have a claim against someone for personal injury or other civil matter, contact the personal injury lawyers at Diamond and Diamond for help. They are experienced lawyers with an unsurpassed knowledge of the law. Call our 24/7 injury hotline at 1-800-567-HURT or visit our website to speak to someone now about your claim. Consultations are free, and we have offices located throughout Ontario.

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