Everybody knows something about lawsuits in these litigious times. Even if you haven't been in court, you've probably watched Judge Judy, Divorce Court, the People's Court or any of the other television court shows filling the airwaves. So you may know that the person who brings a court case is termed the plaintiff. But is there a plaintiff in a criminal case?
The parties in a civil case are called the plaintiff, who brings the suit, and the defendant, who is being sued. In a criminal case, a prosecutor from the district attorney's office, representing the state or federal government, brings criminal charges against the accused, also termed the defendant.
It's no fun to get pulled into a civil court case and run the risk of losing your shirt. But in a criminal case, you run the risk of losing your freedom, so the unpleasantness factor is much higher.
Civil cases always involve at least one party making claims against another or multiple other parties. The person sues for money or some other remedy that doesn't send the other party to jail. Cases seeking divorces, establishing ownership of real property, or seeking an injunction are all included in the family of civil cases. Small claims are one type of civil case.
The person starting the civil law suit is called the plaintiff, while the person against whom the civil suit is brought is termed the defendant. In a case called "Jones vs. Garcia," Jones is the plaintiff and Garcia is the defendant.
There can be dozens or even hundreds of plaintiffs making claims against a defendant, or one plaintiff can sue dozens of defendants. In England and Wales, the person bringing a civil case is termed a claimant instead of a plaintiff, but in the United States, claimant means someone claiming coverage from an insurer outside of the court process.
Criminal cases are different animals. They are never brought by private individuals, but always by a prosecutor, district attorney or some other agency representing the people. That is why criminal cases have names like "People vs. O.J. Simpson." The prosecutor has nothing personal against the person accused of a crime, nor does she stand to personally profit from winning the case. Rather, it is the prosecutor's job to handle criminal cases for the state or federal government.
In a criminal case, the prosecutor is trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused, also called the defendant, committed a crime. The crime might be a small one, like vandalism, or a large one, like murder. State and federal laws describe the conduct that constitutes the crime, and the prosecutor gathers evidence to establish the elements.