The differences between the criminal law and civil law in Pennsylvania are manifest in at least two major ways: the consequences flowing from a violation of either type and the parties involved in each case. A civil case, for example, involves private parties who have a dispute over a matter. The person initiating the lawsuit is called the “plaintiff” and the person against whom relief is sought is called the “defendant.” At stake in a civil case are injunctive relief or damages. Injunctive relief means that a court may force a party to do something or prevent a party from doing another. Damages are the money compensation that are awarded by a court to the party who has suffered a harm or deprivation attributable to the other. In a civil case, one party does not ask the court to incarcerate or arrest the other party. Civil law can be laid down in a state statute or can be found in common law. Common law is the body of law adopted from English law and developed over time in Pennsylvania through the precedent of court rulings. A “tort” is the general term used to define a civil wrong for which a remedy may be allowed. However, contract law, property law, family law, and probate law also fall under the civil law.
After a criminal complaint has been filed against a defendant, a prosecutor representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an attorney representing the defendant begin communicating over the terms of the defendant’s pending criminal case. A criminal complaint outlines the criminal charges against the defendant. This process of communication is referred to as plea negotiation or plea bargaining and concerns the content of the criminal complaint and the sentencing guidelines that would typically apply. Subject to negotiation are the defendant’s plea, alterations to the original charges, and the resultant sentencing and punishment to be recommended to the court.