In this post, law student volunteer Tracy Chen explains the different between criminal and civil law cases.

Criminal Law

The purpose of criminal law is to punish behaviour that offends society as a whole, even though only one person may have been harmed. A criminal case involves prosecution by the Crown (government) against an individual. The Criminal Code contains the offences set out by the federal government that are considered criminal. The person charged with offence is called “the accused” and is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  

In a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove the accused is guilty of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, if any evidence was obtained in violation of the accused’s Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms rights, the judge may decide not to admit such evidence. For example, in the recent Tori Stafford trial, the judge declared that police had violated the accused, Michael Rafferty’s section 8 Charter right against unreasonable search and seizure. The judge threw out the evidence the police obtained from his hard drive, Blackberry and laptop. If an accused is found not guilty, he or she is acquitted and released.

If the accused is found guilty of a crime, the judge must consider an appropriate sentence, which can include a fine, community service or imprisonment, among others.

Civil Law

The purpose of civil law is to address disagreements between individuals, for example, disagreements arising in business contracts or negligence claims. A civil lawsuit refers to a private case where an individual, known as the plaintiff is suing another, known as the defendant.  

The plaintiff must prove the defendant’s liability to the judge or jury on a balance of probabilities, which means more than 50 per cent (more likely than not). The burden of proof to show that the defendant is liable is lower in civil cases compared to the burden of proof for guilt in criminal cases because there is more on the line in criminal suits where the accused’s freedom and liberty is at stake. 

Remedies in civil law suits can be money damages, declaratory (the court can rule on rights or duties of one of the parties), or injunctions (the court can order parties to do or not do something). Money remedies are the most frequent.

A person may undergo a criminal and civil trial for the same conduct. One of the most famous American cases is former football player OJ Simpson, who was charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, was found innocent in his criminal trial, but was found liable in their wrongful deaths in a civil lawsuit. 



This blogpost is written by Tracy Chen, a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School. All info was reviewed by a JFCY staff lawyer.