What’s the difference between a civil case and a criminal case?

Legal terminology can be complicated and confusing unless you are a party in the justice system yourself. Ohio Legal Help seeks to make the justice system more accessible so that people feel empowered to resolve their legal problems. Our blog series, Legally Informed, will help you understand common terms used in cases and the courtroom.

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Let’s start with the difference between a civil case and a criminal case. A civil case is a private dispute between two parties. A civil case is a lawsuit where usually an individual or business sues another to protect, enforce, or to be compensated for a violation of rights. There are many types of civil cases including landlord/tenant disputes, divorce, breach of contract claims, child custody disputes, eviction and more. There are times when it is especially important to hire a lawyer. You can learn more about when and how to hire a lawyer for a civil case here.

The Ohio Legal Help website primarily offers information, court forms and connections to community resources that involve civil cases. See our full list of information and forms on our site map.

A criminal case is where the state or local government charges a person with a crime. When a person is facing a criminal case, the local prosecutor has formally charged an individual with a crime in court. For more information on criminal cases and court, check out Ohio Legal Help’s criminal court page.

If you're dealing with a criminal case, you should get a lawyer to help you. But what if you can’t afford one? That’s where the public defender or court appointed counsel comes in.

TV shows like Judge Judy deal with small dollar civil cases between family, friends, and businesses. Other shows like Law and Order usually deal with criminal cases. However, civil and criminal cases are not mutually exclusive, and a person not convicted of a crime might still be liable in a civil case for the same alleged conduct.

An example of a recent criminal case that took place in Ohio would be The State of Ohio v. William Husel (the physician charged with 14 counts of first-degree murder of patients at Mount Carmel West and St. Ann’s Hospitals). Husel was tried and acquitted for the deaths of 14 patient by overdoses of fentanyl. However, after the acquittal, the families of the patients filed civil lawsuits against Dr. Husel. Even though Dr. Husel was acquitted, he could still be liable in the civil case for medical malpractice. The reason is there is higher of burden of proof you must prove in a criminal case versus a civil case. 

It’s important to know the differences between civil cases and criminal cases so that you can connect to the right resources in your community. If you aren’t sure if you should hire an attorney, you can read more about the signs that it’s important to hire an attorney.

Read about the players involved in a lawsuit next.