The Differences between Criminal Court and Civil Court

Criminal laws are the rules that apply when someone commits a crime, such as assault, robbery, arson, rape and other kinds of crimes. After a person is arrested and charged with a crime, that person goes through Criminal Court. Community Legal Services is unable assist people with cases in Criminal Court.

Civil laws are the rules that apply almost to all other disputes – these are the rules that apply when one person sues another person, a business or agency. This includes housing cases such as an eviction or foreclosure, a family case such as divorce or custody, consumer problems such as debt collection or bankruptcy, or when someone sues for money because of damage to property or personal harm. Community Legal Services can help people with some, but not all, types of civil cases.

What happens in civil court?

In civil court, one person sues (files a case) against another person because of a dispute or problem between them. A business or agency can also file a case in civil court or be sued in civil court. If someone loses a case in civil court, that person may be ordered to pay money to the other side or return property, but that person does not go to jail if they lose the case.

What kinds of cases do civil courts handle?

Civil court cases can be about:

  • money and debts
  • property
  • housing – such as eviction or foreclosure
  • marriage and children – such as divorce, child custody, child support, or guardianship
  • an injury – such as from a car accident, medical malpractice or environmental harm

Administrative or government agencies also have hearings to handle civil cases. These cases can be about:

  • the denial of public benefits such as Nutrition Assistance (formerly Food Stamps), AHCCCS or Cash Assistance
  • Unemployment hearings and Workers Compensation
  • Social Security and SSI benefits
  • discrimination and civil rights violations

How do I win my case in civil court?

To win in civil court, you must prove your case by the "preponderance of evidence."

I cannot afford a lawyer for my civil court case. What can I do?

Contact the legal services (sometimes called legal aid) organization, or other non-profit agencies that provide free or reduced fee legal help in your county or city. Community Legal Services is one such organization in Arizona providing free legal services in some types of civil cases to qualifying individuals. Legal services organizations usually help with:

  • domestic violence
  • family law – divorce, child custody and guardianship
  • housing – eviction, foreclosure, Fair Housing Act violations, bad living conditions
  • public benefits – Nutrition Assistance, AHCCCS, SSI, Veterans, Social Security and Cash Assistance
  • consumer problems – debt collections and bankruptcy
  • employment problems –wages and discrimination

Contact the Modest Means Project (866-637-5341). The Project provides low-cost legal assistance to individuals who do not qualify for free legal services, but cannot afford the expertise of attorneys at the standard rate. The Modest Means Project assists individuals in a one-hour meeting for a fee of $75. Additional services may be offered by the attorney but they must maintain the rate of $75 per hour. The attorneys working with the Project may provide services in a wider range of legal areas than legal services programs are able to.

To find other legal service organizations and/or to apply for free or low cost services in Arizona, go to www.azlawhelp.org. To find legal service organizations in other states go to www.lawhelp.org or www.lsc.gov and you can search by city, state and zip code.

The Maricopa County Bar Association (602-257-4434) and thePima County Bar Association (520-623-4625) offer fee based Lawyer Referral Services for residents of those counties.

Disclaimer

This guide is for general information purposes only. The information it contains is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation and laws that vary from state to state. To find more local resources, visit www.LawHelp.org and select your state.

This guide adapted from: The Differences between Criminal Court and Civil Court, which was authored by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.