Learn the difference between criminal and civil court. 


Criminal laws are the rules that apply when someone commits a crime, such as assault, robbery, murder, arson, rape and other kinds of crimes. After a person is arrested and charged with a crime, that person goes to a Criminal Court. 

Civil law refers to almost all other disputes—these are the rules that apply when one person sues another person, a business or agency. This can cover a housing case such as for eviction or foreclosure, a family case such as divorce or custody, consumer problems such as debt or bankruptcy, or when someone sues for money because of damage to property or personal harm. All of these cases go to a Civil Court.

The judges in criminal and civil court have different powers. Criminal Court judges can punish you for breaking the law by sending you to jail. Civil Court judges can order you to pay money or a fine, or make decisions about your family or your home. 

In criminal court, the government files a case against someone for committing a crime. The person accused of committing the crime is called the defendant. The government must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is a very high standard. If the defendant is found guilty, then they may go to jail or prison. 

If you have been accused of a crime that may lead to jail time, tell the judge if you can't afford a lawyer. Each court has different rules to qualify for a public defender or legal aid lawyer. The judge may ask you to fill out a form on what you own and how much you earn. You may also need to provide copies of your paystubs. If your income is not too high, the judge assigns you a government-paid lawyer called a public defender or legal aid lawyer.

If there is no public defender or legal aid lawyer where you live, then the judge can assign another lawyer to represent you for free. If you are not a U.S. citizen, ask your public defender or legal aid lawyer to check with a qualified immigration lawyer about how your criminal case may affect your immigration status. Some criminal cases may result in deportation. A qualified immigration lawyer may be able to suggest a plea bargain that won’t result in deportation.

If you are a crime victim, you do not need a lawyer in criminal court. Only a lawyer for the government can file a case in criminal court. The lawyer for the government is called the prosecutor, district attorney, D.A., county attorney, or state attorney. Learn more about help for crime victims at https://crimevictimshelpny.org/

In civil court, one person sues (files a case) against another person because of a dispute or problem. A civil case might lead to a divorce, an eviction, an order to pay a debt or other fines, and more. But it does not send someone to jail. 

Civil court cases can be about: 

  • money and debts

  • property 

  • housing – such as eviction, foreclosure or to fix bad living conditions 

  • an injury – such as from a car accident, medical malpractice or environmental harm 

  • marriage and children – such as divorce, child custody, child support, or guardianship 

Administrative or government agencies handle civil cases such as: 

  • the denial of public benefits such as welfare, Food Stamps and Medicaid 

  • traffic violations 

  • unemployment hearings and workers compensation 

  • Social Security and SSI benefits 

  • discrimination and civil rights violations 

To win, you must prove your civil case by the “preponderance of the evidence.” In other words, the judge or jury must believe that your case is stronger than the other side’s case. This is different than the standard for proving a criminal case.

Contact legal aid (also called legal services) or other nonprofits that provide free legal help to people who cannot afford a lawyer. They usually help with: 

  • domestic violence 
  • family law – divorce, child custody, child support and guardianship 
  • housing – eviction, foreclosure, bad living conditions 
  • public benefits – welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, SSI, and Social Security 
  • consumer problems – credit card debt and bankruptcy 

Nonprofits provide different legal services and have their own rules about who qualifies. They don't have enough lawyers to help everyone.

You can also ask your local bar association or law school if they have free programs to help people, such as:

  • a volunteer lawyer project
  • a pro bono project (another word for a volunteer lawyer project) 
  • a free legal workshop
  • a self-help clinic 

To find a nonprofit lawyer, search https://www.lawhelpny.org/find-legal-help. To find a lawyer through the New York State Bar Association go to https://www.findalawyernys.org/

This guide was created by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York in partnership with the New York LawHelp Consortium and Pro Bono Net, with support from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant program.  To read all of the guides in this series, visit lawhelpny.org or LawHelp.org.

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Last Reviewed: March 1, 2024