Two major, separate branches of law, are the civil and criminal court systems. In general civil law, a private or public party can make a civil claim against a private or public party. These typically involve the plaintiff seeking money or other compensation for damages they feel the defendant caused. There are civil matters that do not involve one party suing the other that are also dealt with in civil court such as family and probate law. The criminal court system deals only with crimes against the state (i.e. government) where an individual or group breaks a law. Crimes that break the law may harm an individual, group, community, society or the state.


A civil claim or court case that involves disputes between two or more parties where one party sues the other is a very common kind of civil lawsuit. Even though some civil lawsuits deal with seeking monetary restitution for victims of crimes, it is not considered a criminal case. Oftentimes an individual that is affected by a crime will sue the person who committed the crime in a civil case. In this kind of civil lawsuit, the party that brings their complaint to the legal system is the plaintiff and the defendant is the party that the plaintiff is accusing of wronging them. There can be more than one defendant in a civil claim.In some situations, such as in a class action lawsuit, the plaintiff is actually a group of individuals with a common complaint. These complaints are often made against a large company, corporation, or other kind of group that the group of plaintiffs thinks is responsible for wronging them. Even though there are some that do not, many civil claims involve the plaintiff seeking monetary compensation for what the defendant did wrong to them. Areas of civil law that often do not involve one party suing another include but are not limited to: family, probate, estate, tax, immigration, and contract law.


Unlike many areas of law that fall under the jurisdiction of civil law, criminal law is an entirely separate branch. By definition, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state or other authority, but there is no one universally accepted definition of a crime. Only the state (i.e. the government or other governmental authority) can charge and try to convict someone of a crime. An individual cannot charge someone with a crime even if that person committed a crime directly against them. A criminal lawyer can help people accused of a crime with all issues related to criminal matters including but not limited to, bail, arraignment, arrest, pleas and trials. The prosecutor in a criminal case is usually filed by the district attorney (DA) or a by a United States attorney (also known as a chief federal prosecutor). Criminal law differs from state to state but cases are usually tried in one of three main categories.



Infractions are minor violations such as traffic tickets. Punishment for infractions are typically a fine.


Misdemeanors are more serious crimes than infractions and can typically be punishable with jail time of up to one year and/or fines up to $1,000, depending on the state where the misdemeanor crime took place. Shoplifting is a common misdemeanor.


Felonies are the most serious kind of crime. Murder, manslaughter and aggravated assault are just a few examples of common felonies. If someone is found guilty of a felony crime, they may go to prison for more than a year, be fined over $1,000 or be sentenced to death in states that have the death penalty. The federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or over one year of prison time.