March 2015Volume 1Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

So you’re going to court—Understanding the difference between civil and criminal cases

Navigating the Court system can often be overwhelming and difficult to understand for someone who has never set foot inside the courthouse. Yet, almost every citizen will set foot inside a courtroom at some point in their life, whether it is to perform their civic duty after being summoned for jury duty or as a party to a case. If you do find yourself in a courtroom, it is helpful to understand the basic concept of whether a particular is a criminal case or a civil case. This article briefly summaries the key differences between a criminal case and a civil case in Illinois.

1. The Nature of the Case

A criminal case is one where a person is accused of violating a criminal law. Criminal cases involve a punishment in the form of a fine and/or time in jail. A civil case involves a legal dispute between two people. Jail time is not available in a civil case. The “punishment” or remedy in a civil case can take many different forms. For example, the court can order a person to reimburse another person for damaged property or require a party to perform a specific task that he or she is legally obligated to complete.

2. The Parties

There are at least two parties involved in every case.

In a criminal case, the State of Illinois is always a party to the case and referred to as the plaintiff or the prosecution. The other party is an individual person accused of committing a crime and is referred to as the defendant or defense.

The parties in a civil case are individuals and/or businesses. The person who files the initial paperwork with the Court asking it to resolve a dispute is called the plaintiff or petitioner. The other party or the person accused of doing something wrong is called the defendant or respondent.

3. Burden of Proof

In a civil case the plaintiff must prove it is true that the defendant committed a wrongful act by “a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that it is more probably true than not. In a criminal case the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant is guilty of committing a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Defendant is not required to prove his innocence. There is no precise definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but it is a higher burden than “preponderance of the evidence” in civil cases.

4. Right to a Public Defender

The right to a Public Defender is guaranteed by both the Illinois Constitution and the United Sates Constitution in criminal cases. The Illinois Courts have also held that this Amendment only applies to criminal cases where the person accused of committing a crime faces the possibility of going to jail. There is no right to a public defender in civil cases.

5. Discovery

Discovery is a procedural device that requires a party to disclose information to the other party. In a criminal case, discovery is fairly restricted due to the defendant’s right against self-incrimination and the right to confront witnesses. Generally the prosecution is required to turn over all the evidence in its possession that would exonerate or clear the defendant. The defendant is not required to turn over any evidence to the prosecution that would help prove his guilt. In contrast, discovery in civil cases is very broad. Both parties are required to turn over any evidence that is relevant and unprivileged (i.e., attorney-client privilege).

6. The Jury

A defendant in either a criminal or civil case typically has the Constitutional right to demand a trial by jury. Civil cases also require the payment of a fee for a jury trial demand. Traditionally both criminal and civil cases are decided by a jury consisting of 12 people. Today criminal cases are still decided by a 12-person jury. However, beginning June 6, 2015, civil cases will be decided by a six-person jury. ■

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