In a civil case, the government is not involved. The government could be involved as a party, but the government is not running the case. In a civil case, let’s say that you get into a car accident with someone, or someone builds a building or a shed or something that’s on your property, that goes over the property line. Those are situations that really don’t involve the government. They really don’t involve the rest of society.
The problem is between you and your neighbor, or you and the person that you got into the car accident with. Those are civil matters. They’re individual harms that were caused, and there’s an individual remedy. That remedy, by the way, is usually money. That’s what the civil courts usually deal in money. That’s usually the remedy for any type of civil violation. There also is such thing as an injunction.
For example, going back to our shed example, you could get the court to order that person not just to pay you for whatever inconvenience was caused, but also to actually move the shed and not cross your property line with anything else any other materials or something like that. So, that’s the way civil works, and since it’s party to party, since it’s all private, and the government’s not involved, the attorneys are private, too. If you want to have an attorney in a civil case, hire one because the government’s not going to pay for one for you.
Also, in a civil case, both parties are on an equal, even playing field. They both carry the same burden of proof and, by the way, that burden is typically going to be a preponderance of the evidence. You could call that 51%. That’s supposed to be the scales of justice. So, basically, one side, if one side puts on evidence that’s just a little bit more compelling than the other side, and the jury feels that way, that side wins, if it’s a jury trial, and speaking of which, it doesn’t have to be a jury trial, it could be a court trial, too, meaning that the judge decides the case instead of a jury. But even if it is a jury trial, unlike criminal cases where a unanimous verdict is virtually always required, in a civil case, in many states, a unanimous verdict is not required.
Now, in the federal system, they require a unanimous verdict whether it’s civil or criminal, but in state systems, many states do not require a unanimous jury verdict for a civil case.
In criminal law, then, the harm is supposed to be a public harm. Then let’s say your neighbor they have a domestic dispute at your neighbor’s house and you can hear screaming, and someone calling for help, let’s say or something, or glass breaking. Someone involved in the actual incident might think that “well, it happened in my house and between me and this other person, and so that’s a private matter. It is not because our society has decided that this type of behavior harms the whole community.
So you’re sitting in your place, and you’re listening to all of this it makes it worse for you. It makes it worse for everyone in the neighborhood. The same thing with drug dealing, same thing with prostitution, we can go down the list. So that’s why you get a prosecutor, that’s why you get a public defender. If you feel aggrieved, like I said before, if someone built their shed on your land, well too bad, you’re going to go have to hire an attorney, you’re going to have to go file it in court. But if someone punches you in the face and the police are called, and it’s determined to be a battery, you don’t have to hire an attorney. You can if you want. You can sue them in addition. But you don’t have to hire an attorney. The government will provide a prosecutor, at no expense to you, to prosecute that case. Because the notion is that when that person did that, it was a public charm, and there should be a public remedy, and there’s going to be a public attorney representing you, or your interests, whereas both parties carried the burden of proof equally, where the state carries the entire burden.
The defendant doesn’t have to do anything. That defendant can walk into the courtroom, sit down and not say a word during the entire trial, and win, and be found not guilty, if the state doesn’t carry its burden to prove that person guilty of every offense charged, every element of every offense charged and that burden is a very high burden. This time the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s the highest burden we have in our justice system and it is all carried, again, by the state.