Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

The purpose of a court case is to shed light on a disagreement or a crime, and to make sure people respect the law. At the end of the case, the judge makes a decision and sometimes orders financial compensation or a punishment.

Two Main Types of Cases: Civil and Criminal

In the Quebec legal system, a person can be brought to court in a civil case or a criminal case. The differences between these two kinds of cases include the objectives, the deadlines for taking legal action and the level of evidence needed to convince the judge.

Civil Cases

In these cases, a person or company asks a judge to settle a civil problem, such as

  • a problem concerning an inheritance,
  • a problem involving a contract, or
  • a family problem, such as divorce or custody of children.

A person can also ask a judge for compensation for damage suffered because of someone else's fault. This type of case is called a "civil responsibility" case. For example, if someone sues a plumber for poor repair work that caused a flood in her kitchen, the judge can order the plumber to pay money to compensate her for the water damage.

Civil cases deal with a wide range of topics, and many different rules apply to them. The "Civil Cases" column in the table below provides information on "civil responsibility" cases only.

Criminal Cases

The reason these cases come to court is always the same: a person is taken to court because she is accused of a crime. The judge, and sometimes a jury, must consider the evidence presented during a trial to decide whether the accused is guilty or innocent.

Most crimes and their punishments are described in the Criminal Code of Canada.

Some crimes involve other people, including

  • assault,
  • murder,
  • sexual assault, and
  • identity theft.

Other crimes have to do with objects, such as drug possession and making fake money.

Main Differences

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • The principle is always the same: A sues B for causing damage to A or to something belonging to A.

  • How does a person cause damage? A person causes damage, for example, by breaking a contract, by breaking an object belonging to someone, or by hurting someone.
  • The principle is always the same: a person is accused of a crime (e.g., murder, assault, identity theft).

Note:

  • A crime can occur even if there is no "immediate" victim (e.g., the crime of drug possession).
  • In Canada, people are considered innocent until the evidence proves they are guilty.


Note: A person can be sued in a civil case and a criminal case for the same act.

For example, if A hits B, A can be accused of assault in a criminal case.

B can also take legal action against A in a civil case to ask for compensation for the physical harm B caused her.

How the Case Starts

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • The person who suffered damage (or her lawyer) takes a case against the person she thinks is responsible for the damage.

  • The person taking the case asks to be compensated, that is, to have the damages repaired. Compensation is usually in the form of money.
  • The government takes a case against the person accused of the crime. The government is also called the "prosecution".
  • It is therefore not the victim who takes the case.
  • The government has several goals when taking criminal cases: making sure people respect the law and discouraging criminal behaviour.

Representation by a Lawyer

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • Both the person taking the case and the person being sued can be represented by a lawyer if they wish.
  • However, if the trial takes place in the Small Claims Division of the Court of Québec, they cannot be represented by a lawyer during in court.
  • The government is always represented by lawyers. These lawyers are called "criminal and penal prosecuting attorneys". They used to be called "Crown prosecutors."
  • The accused can be represented by a lawyer, who is called the "defence lawyer".

Who Pays for the Case

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • The person who takes the legal action pays for the expense of taking the case (for example, lawyer fees).

  • The person sued pays for his own expenses (for example, lawyer fees).
  • The person who loses the case usually pays the fees related to the court case itself (e.g., experts' fees, administrative fees).
  • In some cases, the person who loses at trial may have to pay a sum of money to compensate the lawyer fees that the other party had to pay. This would happen if the action was declared abusive.
  • In most cases, the government pays all the costs of the case.
  • The accused pays costs related to defending herself.

People with low income sometimes qualify for Legal Aid. Legal Aid is a government program that provides for a lawyer free of charge.

Deadline for Taking a Case

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • People who suffer damage can't wait too long to take legal action. The law has certain deadlines. This is called extinctive prescription.
  • The deadlines vary depending on the type of case. For example, someone who wants to sue for defamation - damage to a person's reputation - has one year to take a case.
  • When a crime takes place, the lawyer for the prosecution decides whether there is enough evidence to accuse someone of the crime.

  • Generally, there is no deadline for bringing a criminal case against someone of a crime.

  • However, the deadline is six months in the case of a crime "punishable by summary conviction". The Criminal Code states whether a crime is punishable in this way.

Role of Person Who Suffered Damage or of the Victim

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • The person who suffered damage must prove that the person being sued is responsible for the damage.

  • More specifically, the person suing must prove that the other person committed a fault and that this fault caused the damage.
Since the government takes the accused to court, the victim is usually a key witness in the case.

Evidence

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
The person taking the case must convince the judge that his version of the events is more probable than the other version presented. It is not necessary to convince the judge that his version is true "beyond a reasonable doubt".
  • The government must convince the judge or jury that the accused is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt".
  • If the government does not present enough evidence, or if the accused raises a reasonable doubt, the accused must be found not guilty.

Important! In a civil case, the level of evidence needed to convince the judge that someone was at fault is not as high as in a criminal case.

This is why a person taken to court in a civil case and a criminal case for the same act can be held responsible in the civil case but found not guilty in the criminal case.

Types of Orders the Judge Can Make

CIVIL CASES
CRIMINAL CASES
  • If the judge decides in favour of the person who suffered damage, she can require the person responsible for the damage to compensate the other person, by ordering the payment of a sum of money, for example.

  • However, the judge cannot order imprisonment in a civil case, unless someone is in contempt of court. Contempt of court includes not following a court order, or failing to show the proper respect for a judge or for court rules.
  • If the accused is found guilty, the judge can order different punishments. For example, she can order the guilty person to go to jail, pay a fine or do community work.
  • In some cases, the judge can also require the guilty party to compensate the victim for any damage.

Resources are available for crime victims and their family members. These resources provide support and financial compensation for the harm they have suffered.

Our videos

The Legal Burden of Proof

Differences Between Civil Trials and Criminal or Penal Trials

Important !
This article explains in a general way the law that applies in Quebec. This article is not a legal opinion or legal advice. To find out the specific rules for your situation, consult a lawyer or notary.

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