There are several important differences between civil and criminal court. In general, civil courts are designed to resolve differences when private individuals or businesses can no longer reach an agreement on their own. Criminal courts are designed to determine whether a person has violated a criminal law (a law against harming or endangering others or their property) and, if so, punish the offender.
In some countries, civil and criminal issues may be decided by one court, but in the United States, civil and criminal courts are completely separate. Different rules apply and, at least in larger cities, the attorneys and judges are different too.
In criminal court, the state, represented by a prosecutor, brings charges against the defendant for breaking the law. It is up to the prosecutor, not the victim, to decide whether to bring charges and, if so, what charges. The prosecutor must prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases, the defendant has the right to a jury trial, and the verdict must be unanimous. If convicted, the defendant can be sentenced to prison or jail, as well as ordered to pay a fine.
For example, if a drunk driver causes a car accident, the driver can be arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). If the prosecutor proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was intoxicated, the driver can be sent to prison or jail or ordered to attend alcohol treatment or pay a fine.
In some states, for certain minor misdemeanors involving property damage or very slight physical injury, a defendant can pay the victim and the court can dismiss the charges.
For more information on this process, see Civil Compromise for a Criminal Offense.
Civil courts handle disputes between individuals and businesses, including family law cases like divorces or adoptions, business and contract disputes, personal injury cases, and property disputes. In civil court, one party (the plaintiff) brings suit against another party (the defendant) and asks the court to award monetary damages, change a party's legal status (such as dissolving a marriage), or order the plaintiff to do or stop doing something.
Plaintiffs and defendants in civil trials have some, but not all, of the same rights as criminal defendants. Often, parties do not have the right to a jury trial, there is no requirement that the verdict be unanimous, and the judge or jury need only reach conclusions "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning more likely than not, that the plaintiff's allegations are true. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is a more difficult standard to meet.
Considering the example just above, if the drunk driver hits and injures a bicyclist, the cyclist can file a lawsuit in civil court seeking damages. The cyclist is the plaintiff and the drunk driver is the defendant. The cyclist must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the drunk driver's actions caused the injuries. If the cyclist succeeds, the driver may be ordered to pay the cyclist's medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and attorneys' fees. These damages will be in addition to any criminal conviction.
While some attorneys practice both criminal and civil law, most attorneys specialize in one or the other. In criminal cases, the prosecutor is a government employee. Because the prosecutor represents the public, prosecutors have an ethical obligation to uphold the public's interest in doing justice. For example, "in the interests of justice," a prosecutor may decide not to retry a case or to drop charges. A public defender or a privately retained defense attorney, however, is charged with protecting the interests only of his or her client. Though the lawyer may not act unethically, the lawyer must put the client's interests above any policy or political considerations.
In civil cases, private attorneys usually represent both parties. Unlike criminal defendants, parties to civil suits who cannot afford attorneys are not entitled to have attorneys provided for them in most cases. In some communities, legal aid attorneys represent people who cannot afford other representation. If that option is not available, people who cannot afford an attorney may have to represent themselves.
If you are charged with a crime or named as a defendant in a civil suit, you should talk to a local attorney. Both criminal convictions and civil judgments can have serious consequences and an experienced attorney who specializes in the kind of case in which you are involved will be able to tell you what to expect in court and how to proceed to achieve the best possible outcome in your case.