The American justice system generally handles two types of cases. Criminal courts decide cases where the government prosecutes someone for breaking the law. If convicted, a criminal may pay fines to the government or serve time in jail. Civil courts resolve legal disputes between two or more people. While a criminal case always involves a government prosecutor and a defendant, the parties involved in a civil case may be private citizens, businesses or other institutions.
Civil courts handle cases that can have profound effects on people's lives. For example, a large number of civil cases deal with divorces, child custody and child support. If you're involved in an auto accident and sue the driver of the other car to recover medical expenses or the cost of repairing your car, that lawsuit would take place in civil court. Businesses that have contract disputes with other businesses also seek relief in civil courts. Many government agencies have their own civil administrative courts that handle civil cases involving denial of government benefits such as Medicare or unemployment, civil rights violations or discrimination.
Read More: What Does Civil Judgment Mean?
Go Tell the Judge
A civil court judge's role differs drastically from that of the judge in a criminal court. If you lose a case in civil court, for example, the judge can't send you to jail -- but she can order you to pay money to the winning party. Many civil court trials involve only the parties to the case and the judge because in civil cases, parties can -- and often do -- waive their right to a jury. In these bench trials, the judge decides what law applies to the situation presented, whose version of events she finds more convincing and what relief, if any, must be granted to the winning party.
The Role of the Jury
While litigants have the Constitutional right to request a jury in federal civil courts, this right doesn't extend to state courts. Additionally, the Constitution doesn't require civil juries to be a certain size or vote in a certain way. Because of this, the use of juries in civil trials varies widely by state. Although juries can be between six and 12 people, civil juries in most states have six people with no alternates. Generally, jurors listen to the evidence presented and decide factual questions: who was harmed, who caused the harm and the amount of damages, if any, they should pay as a result. The jurors' decision need not be unanimous, as in criminal trials. Many states allow civil court judgments with only a majority, such as three-fourths or five-sixths, of the jurors agreeing on a verdict.
Damages and Remedies
Unlike the government in a criminal case, the plaintiff in a civil case need not convince the judge or jury "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant harmed him. He only needs a "preponderance of the evidence" on his side, proving his version of events was more likely than not. If the judge or jury finds in his favor, the civil court may award him monetary or equitable relief. Monetary relief attempts to compensate the plaintiff for costs incurred or injuries suffered. In cases where the plaintiff sought equitable relief, the civil court orders the defendant to do something like fulfill a contract or issues an injunction prohibiting the defendant from continuing an activity, such as harassing a former spouse.
- U.S. Courts: Civil Cases
- The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: The Difference Between Civil Courts and Criminal Courts
- Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York: The Differences Between Criminal Court and Civil Court
- American Bar Association: How Courts Work -- Civil and Criminal Cases
- American Bar Association: How Courts Work -- Selecting the Jury
Jennifer Mueller has a J.D. from the University of Indiana, Maurer School of Law. She has been sharing her legal knowledge on the internet since 2009. Mueller has been published in the Indiana Law Journal, and her writing appears on legal websites such as LegalZoom.