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Law 101 for the Aam Aadmi: Criminal Law v/s Civil Law

Introduction: Tareeq pe Tareeq

From Sunny Deol hamming “Tareeq pe Tareeq” in Damini , to Saurabh Shukla’s “ Kanoon andha hota hain .. judge nahin”, courtroom drama has always had the Indian audience captivated. Where Bollywood failed, John Grisham, Law and Order and the recent onslaught of true crime shows worked their magic. Whatever may be the medium or language audience across the world have lapped up the intrigue and drama of the courtrooms.

We all love to watch the innocent vindicated and the guilty punished.
But how much do we understand law or the legal system? Let’s start with a very basic question: What’s the difference between Criminal and Civil Law?

Criminal v/s Civil Law: Tareeq pe Tareeq

Basics: Criminal v/s Civil Law

The online Cambridge dictionary offers the following definitions:

Civil Law: “The system of law concerned with private relations between members of a community rather than criminal, military, or religious affairs.”

Criminal Law:” the part of the legal system which relates to punishing people who have committed a criminal act”

So civil law deals with disputes between two entities, who may be both private and public, or when the rights of an individual have been violated. Examples of civil law include landlord/tenet disputes, divorce, child custody, defamation etc.

Criminal law deals with offences that are crimes that affect society at large rather than an individual even though the immediate victim might be an individual. Examples of criminal law include murder, battery, theft, assault etc.

The question of Intent?

“Mens rea” is Latin for “guilty mind”, is the knowledge that one’s action or lack of the same will result in a crime being committed. It is the “motive” that is so prominently emphasized upon in many a real and reel courtroom drama.

While intent is of paramount importance in criminal cases, in civil cases its not often necessary to establish the same. For example, when someone plans and kills someone, it’s a criminal offence. Here, it’s vital to establish intent for a fair trial.

On the other hand, if say someone was negligent and left a manhole open and that injured someone, it would not in most cases be a criminal offense. But the victim in such a scenario can seek compensation for injury under civil law, proving whether the concerned party left the manhole open on purpose is not necessary.

Who files the case?

Civil cases are usual filed by private parties, like individuals or corporations. Criminal cases are usually filed by the state or government.

In civil cases, the evidence gathering is usually performed by the claimant (one who files the case) although he/she could receive assistance from courts for discovery of documents and setting up of commissions. In criminal cases, evidence is gathered by law enforcement agencies for e.g. the police.

In criminal cases, the evidence gathered by law enforcement agencies are examined by the prosecution. The prosecution is the legal side that will be presenting the case against the accused. On examination the prosecution will decide whether to proceed with criminal charges against the accused. When the charges are brought to court, a criminal court based on first impression only needs to find sufficient basis to move against the accused for proceeding with trial.

In civil cases, the gathered evidence is examined by the claimant themselves. For the civil court to admit the civil case, the claimant must on first impression be able to demonstrate that there is a case in its favour.

Punishment:

In civil cases the verdict can be both money decree, which involves payment of money or a declaratory decree, which declares the rights of the claimant. As such punishments in such cases would be of financial settlements or modifications to behaviour. Such cases are also highly likely to have out of court settlements.

In criminal cases the verdict can be either a acquittal or guilty. In case of a guilty verdict, punishment would result in a conviction which depending on the nature of the crime may be simple or rigorous in nature or in rare cases a death penalty. In addition, a fine may also be imposed.

Burden of proof:

Burden of proof simply means who needs to prove the claims being made. In both civil and criminal cases, the burden of proof lay on:
• The party that would fail if no evidence was given by either side.
• The party asserting a claim and intending to convince the court of the same.

So, in civil cases, it lay on the claimant and in criminal cases, it lays on the prosecution. Exceptions to this exist.

Now we know who has to prove, so the next question is to what level should he/she prove, otherwise known as the standard of proof? The standard of proof the level of certainty and degree of evidence required to establish proof. This varies for civil and criminal cases.

In civil cases the standard of proof is “preponderance of probabilities”, which means that its more likely that the fact has occurred than it not having. In mathematical terms, one can say when there is a 51% chance of the said fact having occurred.

In criminal cases, given the gravity of the verdict possible, the standard of proof required is “beyond all reasonable doubt”. One may translate it to, establishing that there is a 95% chance that the said fact is true. Exceptions to this exist.

Crossover:

It’s also possible to have a case that is both civil and criminal. For example, in case of domestic violence, the victim may contact local law enforcement and proceeding with criminal charges. In addition, they an also approach a civil court to levy compensation for harm sustained.

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