Most Americans probably know more about criminal law, partly thanks to crime shows and detective novels, but civil law plays a significant role in how we live.
For example, New Jersey is one of over a dozen states last year that changed its tort laws related to sex abuse lawsuits. These recent headline-making changes in New Jersey’s civil laws may have altered the life of someone you know, or yours.
So, the time is always right for a brief review of what civil law is and how it differs from the more familiar criminal laws and procedures.
Crimes can get you in trouble with the government
Criminal charges punish people for crimes, meaning breaking laws found in the criminal statutes. Such cases pit the accused against the government.
The government may need to prove its case in court unless, for example, the accused pleads guilty or a judge says the government’s evidence is not good enough.
If the case is tried, the government’s “burden of proof” is very high, specifically “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Torts can land you in civil court and are easier to prove
In contrast, civil laws are meant to keep the peace between people and/or companies. They include rules for settling questions over divorce, divvying up people’s possessions after they die, fulfilling contracts and so on.
One area of civil law is tort law. It keeps the peace by offering an orderly way to hold others accountable (“liable”) for poor behavior such as violating others’ rights. Wrongdoing that might make you liable is called a “tort.” A tort can also be a crime, as the recent news about changes in civil laws having to do with sex abuse reminds us. But many other torts such as defamation do not usually violate criminal law.
Commonly, when a court finds you liable, you will have to compensate the other person by paying “damages.”
In tort law, the person claiming they were wronged has the burden of proof, and the burden is lower than the government’s in a criminal case. The burden in civil law is ordinarily a preponderance of evidence, meaning a better than 50/50 confidence that the claim is correct.