Victims Forum

Understanding Your Rights: Criminal vs. Civil Law

Surviving sexual assault is one of the most traumatic experiences a person will experience in their lifetime. Fortunately, our society has resources to help survivors overcome the pain, stigma and emotional turmoil of sexual assault, and the law is one of the most powerful tools on your side.

Survivors of sexual assault can pursue justice against their perpetrators through two legal avenues: criminal and civil court.

The Basics

A criminal case is when the government goes after the accused. The burden of proof, or what is required for the accused to be found guilty, is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In other words, based on the facts presented, there is no other logical explanation for who committed the crime.

A defendant found guilty faces punishment, which generally involves penalties and/or jail time. Since the state litigates these cases, the assault survivor has little to no say in what happens during the trial or what type of punishment is sought against the perpetrator.

On the other hand, a civil case is when one party sues another party for some kind of injury committed against them. The burden of proof for these cases is lower than in criminal proceedings. The judge or jury will decide if the accused is liable based on a “preponderance of evidence.” This means it is more likely than not that the accused committed the injurious act.

If found liable, the defendant (perpetrator) will pay money to the plaintiff (assault survivor). Because a civil proceeding is entirely initiated by the plaintiff, he or she will be heavily involved in the proceedings and help determine the amount of compensation sought from the defendant.

The Advantages

Criminal cases can provide a sense of relief to survivors by having the community and the eyes of the law recognize the perpetrator as the person guilty of committing the heinous act. Seeing that person punished for their crime can lighten a survivor’s burden. This may be especially true if the perpetrator serves jail time and is removed from society for awhile, unable to harm other innocent members of the public.

Like a guilty verdict in a criminal proceeding, a favorable verdict in a civil case can be a source of comfort for the survivor. The perpetrator’s guilt for the crime is effectively acknowledged by society. Furthermore, the monies won in a civil proceeding can provide the financial means to help a survivor recover.

Survivors often face a range of economic hardships, depending on their circumstances – such as a college student missing school and needing therapy, to a spouse losing everything after leaving an abusive marriage. In many cases, a civil proceeding is crucial to helping an assault survivor move on positively with their life.

by Jessica Pride
April 8, 2016

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