Civil Court vs. Criminal Court: The Basics

We often say that criminal court is designed to punish the perpetrator while civil court is focused on making the victim whole, but what does that mean exactly?

Civil court and criminal court operate very differently. In a criminal case, the perpetrator is being held accountable to the state (this is where you’ll see cases like New York v. John Smith) while in a civil case, the perpetrator is being held accountable to the survivor (this is where you’ll see cases like Jane Doe v. John Smith).

Burden of Proof
In a criminal case, the perpetrator is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The prosecutor (the state’s lawyer) must prove that the perpetrator is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that based on all the evidence and testimony, each of the 12 jurors needs to be 95% sure the perpetrator is guilty. The burden of proof in criminal trials is so high that proving a perpetrator guilty of sexual assault is very difficult. In order to avoid putting survivors through unnecessary pain, most prosecutors will not pursue a trial unless there is very strong corroborating evidence. If a perpetrator is found guilty in criminal court, the punishment is prison.

In a civil case, everyone comes in as equals. Nobody is presumed innocent or guilty. Both parties are represented by their own lawyers; the state is not involved. In a civil case, the survivor’s lawyer has to prove that the perpetrator is guilty by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that based on the evidence and testimony, a juror only has to be 51% sure the perpetrator is guilty. This makes it much more likely that a survivor will get justice. In New York, six out of six jurors need to agree to hold the perpetrator accountable; in California, nine out of twelve jurors need to agree. If the jury decides in favor of the survivor, the perpetrator is required to compensate the survivor.

Benefits of Civil Court
Because of the difficulty of proving sexual assault in a criminal case, though, many of these crimes are not prosecuted. Survivors of sexual assault can pursue justice through the criminal courts as well as the civil courts. This means that survivors can pursue civil court cases, even if they’ve had a criminal trial for the same sexual assault.

Costs of Civil Court
All trials cost money, and civil trials are no exception. Private law firms make money when they win cases against wealthy perpetrators. If perpetrators don’t have any financial worth, private law firm often won’t take on victims’ cases unless the victim self-funds the legal work.

The Survivors Justice Center’s Role
Because of the challenges of criminal cases and the financial burden of civil cases, many survivors don’t pursue legal justice. SJC doesn’t take economic status or financial means into account when it comes to choosing clients. We help survivors take legal action at no cost to them and hold their perpetrators accountable.

For more information about these and other opportunities to get involved, please use our contact form.