Civil vs. Criminal Law

Contributor: Neil Tichelaar. Lesson ID: 13165

Did you know that not all law is the same? Explore the subtle differences between civil and criminal law with real-life examples and fact-based scenarios!


Social Studies, United States

learning style
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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When you flip through the TV channels at your house and see a show like Judge Judy or Law & Order, you probably just assume they are both court shows and, therefore, the same. But that is not the case.

Judge Judy and Law & Order

Image by Jena Fuller, via Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Image by Wolf Productions, via Wikimedia Commons, does not meet the threshold of originality for copyright protection.


These shows and their cases deal with different types of laws, just like our justice system does in the United States. Today, we are going to examine the two types of law and how to tell the differences between each based on scenarios.

Before we can proceed to the scenarios, we need to figure out what civil law and criminal law actually are. Let's get started!

Civil Law

Civil law deals with arguments and disputes over money or property between two or more people, businesses, or governments.

While these cases typically deal with issues over money and property, they can also deal with civil rights issues, copyright laws, or taxes. These cases are usually held in district courts, but the type of civil law that is broken will determine whether the case will be held in a state or federal court.

Civil law cases are usually only heard by a judge, or they are settled out of court.

Examples of civil law cases include:

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So, what about those court shows that you catch on TV? These shows are a bit misleading because they are not actual court cases. They are considered arbitration, which means a neutral person decides how to resolve a disagreement between two people or parties. These are always based on civil law cases, however. Read Is Judge Judy a Real Court? Top 3 'Secrets' of TV Judge Shows by Andrew Chow, Esq. for FindLaw for more fun details.

Criminal Law

Cases that deal with criminal behavior or individuals who break federal, state, or local laws are criminal law.

Criminal law cases can range from breaking and entering (going into someone else's home without permission) to murder. The severity of the crime determines in what court level the case is heard. These cases are usually heard by a judge and jury.

Examples of criminal law cases include:

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Bonus Fact

Sometimes, criminal cases and civil cases can apply to the same crimes. How does that happen? O.J. Simpson's 1994 arrest on two counts of first-degree murder in 1995 is an example. Simpson was acquitted of these criminal charges by a jury in 1995. In 1996, the families of the murder victims filed a civil suit against Simpson for wrongful death. A jury in this trial found Simpson responsible for the deaths and awarded $33.5 million to the families. clearly explains What's the difference between a civil judgment and a criminal conviction?

Let's head over to the Got It? section now and identify civil and criminal cases.

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