Criminal Law and Civil Law
Law in the United States is usually split into two categories: criminal law and civil law. Depending on which type of case you are facing, the procedures and results can be very different. Understanding the difference between these two types of law is important for deciding on a course of action.
Criminal law, sometimes called “public law,” generally focuses on actions that are considered dangerous or harmful for society at large. In contrast, civil law (sometimes called “private law”) usually resolves disputes between individuals or individual entities. In criminal law, because the actions in question are thought of as being perpetrated against the state, the prosecutor works on behalf of the state. Likewise, civil prosecutors work on the behalf of individuals.
Since criminal law deals with crimes against the state, much of what criminal courts see is violations of criminal law. This refers to everything from money laundering to arson to murder. Criminal law cases are usually seen by a jury, a judge, or a panel of judges. Regardless of the configuration, both sides (the defendant and the state) present their arguments before the court and a decision is made.
Civil laws, in contrast, govern grievances and transactions between individual parties. If two parties have a contract, for example, and one accuses the other of breaking the contract, the case can be brought before a civil court. In addition, cases where the ownership of property is contested are generally civil law as well. Most lawsuits occur as civil law.
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