The average person on the streets doesn’t really differentiate between civil law and criminal law, thanks in no small part to television. Think about it–what is most often depicted on television shows and in the news? Criminal cases! But the field of law is an extremely broad one, with most attorneys specializing in particular niches. Pennsylvania lawyers who practice civil law will be of little use in a criminal case, and vice versa. There are several differences between these two areas of law.
Criminal cases are more widely publicized because–let’s be honest–they’re much more dramatic than civil lawsuits. While most people have at least heard of civil lawsuits, they aren’t really sure what makes them so different from the nail-biting cases tried in television courtrooms. For one thing, they’re certainly a lot less exciting and have a lot less at stake for the defendants, both nationally and here in Pennsylvania. Lawyers representing criminal cases often hold their clients’ lives in their hands–literally. Losing a criminal case can bring on serious prison time, and sometimes even the death penalty.
Criminal law involves, logically enough, crimes committed by one party against another and are broken up into two subsets: felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are larger offenses that typically result in harsher punishments. Misdemeanors are smaller offenses that yield sentences that are not quite as harsh. It is recommended that defendants retain a highly experienced Pennsylvania lawyer practicing criminal law to represent them no matter which type of crime they have been accused of committing.
Defendants in civil cases, however, are never subject to punishments as severe as those handed down in criminal cases, no matter the type of crime charged. They will not serve jail time if found guilty in a civil trial and definitely won’t ever face the death penalty. The most common penalties handed out in civil court are monetary damages, with defendants being held responsible to reimburse the plaintiffs in an amount comparable to the loss they have suffered directly resulting from the defendant’s actions. The amount actually awarded is usually determined by the judge and/or jury and can include punitive damages as well as those for pain and suffering. Additionally, defendant’s will be held liable to pay any legal fees the plaintiff has incurred on behalf of their Pennsylvania lawyers.
In a criminal case, the burden of proof is higher than in a civil lawsuit. The prosecution must demonstrate through evidence that the defendant is guilty of the accused crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defense, on the other hand, shows that there is even a shred of reasonable doubt, the defendant will typically be found not guilty. The word “typically” is used because, as Pennsylvania lawyers who practice criminal law can attest, just about anything is possible in the jury system!
The burden of proof is much lower in a civil case. The plaintiff only needs to convince the jury that there is a reasonable chance the defendant is responsible. At that point, the burden shifts to the defendants and their Pennsylvania lawyers to prove their innocence. If the evidence shows there is more than a fifty percent probability the defendant is responsible, the jury can return a guilty verdict. The defendant will then be responsible for making reparations to the plaintiff.
Plaintiffs who win civil lawsuits shouldn’t do a victory dance with their Pennsylvania lawyers right away. Just because the defendant has been found guilty of the charges and ordered to pay, that doesn’t mean the plaintiff will see their money any time soon. If the defendant doesn’t have deep pockets, for instance, they may not be able to afford to pay the full damages. For many who go through the expense of bringing about a civil lawsuit, however, it’s often not just about the money. It can be about achieving vindication or, sometimes, the only way to stop others from acting negligently.
Even if the defendant is convicted of the charges and ordered to pay, it still doesn’t mean that the plaintiff will receive a financial windfall as a result of the conviction. Often if the defendant has nothing to give, then the plaintiff won’t receive the judgment awarded, not even reimbursement for legal expenses incurred by their Pennsylvania lawyers. So, while civil cases usually lack the dramatic punch of criminal cases, plaintiffs often gain true closure just by having the defendant found guilty.