Our legal system is composed of two different types of cases, criminal and civil. From how they are prosecuted to the burden of proof, criminal and civil cases are very different.
Criminal actions are considered offenses against society as a whole, even though the crime may have been directed at one person. They are generally prosecuted by the state. The case is filed by the state and the victim is not named as a party in the case. A jury is used to determine the outcome of the matter.
Civil actions, on the other hand, are typically disputes between individuals or individuals and corporate or governmental organizations regarding the duties and responsibilities they owe one another. The wronged party files the case. Although civil cases are tried in front of juries in some instances, many are decided by a judge.
The standard of proof is vastly different. There are generally greater consequences in a criminal case (i.e. jail time), so it is harder to prove. The jury must be convinced “beyond reasonable doubt.” Civil cases have a lower standard of proof like “preponderance of evidence,” which means that the event in question more than likely occurred in a certain way.
There are more protections in place in a criminal trial, such as protection against illegal search and seizure guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. In order to assure a fair trial, the defendant is entitled to have an attorney present during all phases of the proceedings. If he or she cannot afford an attorney, the state must provide one. In civil cases, defendants must pay for an attorney or defend themselves.
In terms of punishment, jail time is a potential punishment in a criminal case, but in a civil case, punishment usually results in monetary damages or issuance of a court order to do or not do something.