What distinguishes criminal law from civil law?

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.

Criminal law, on the other hand, is a creature of statute. Pennsylvania legislators decide whether certain conduct is prohibited by law. In Pennsylvania, the crimes and offenses are enumerated in Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Code. “Crimes” are those acts that constitute violations of the criminal code. The criminal law or code also prescribes punishments and sentencing guidelines. The parties in a criminal case are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on the one hand, and the alleged criminal called the “defendant,” on the other. The consequences under criminal law are more often considered more severe because they include incarceration.

In civil cases or criminal cases, a party may hire an attorney to represent the party’s interests. Attorneys who practice criminal law may also practice civil law but experts in one or the other may be more proficient.

This information is provided for educational purposes, and should not be interpreted as legal advice.