The law is an incredibly broad term encompassing a wide range of specialties. Many people do not realize that lawyers choose specific areas of the law to specialize in. This allows them to devote themselves to knowing everything about their specialty areas. The first step in hiring a lawyer is determining if you need someone specializing in civil or criminal defense. Ask yourself these questions to determine what type of lawyer you need.
Which Court Is Overseeing the Case?
Multiple courts hear cases, so looking at the one overseeing your case can tell you what type of lawyer you need. For example, there are small claims courts that oversee small-value civil cases. Circuit civil courts oversee higher-value civil cases. For criminal courts, there are circuit and county courts. Then there are appeals courts and a supreme court.
In a criminal court, the prosecuting attorney decides if and what charges to bring against the defendant. Typically, the defendant has a right to have a jury hear the case and determine the verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, they can face a broad range of punishments. It could be a simple fine paid to the court and victim. But, on the other hand, it could also be spending the rest of their life in prison.
In a civil court, the victim is the one who decides to bring a suit against the defendant. Instead of a state prosecutor, the plaintiff victim will hire their own legal representation. A jury trial is not typically a right to parties involved in a civil case. Instead, a judge hears the parties’ arguments and makes a ruling.
Who Is the Other Party In the Case?
Looking at the other parties involved in the case can help you determine the type of lawyer you need. The documentation you receive referencing the case will tell you who the other parties are.
During a civil case, a private person or business will file a lawsuit against another private individual or business. There is a dispute between the two parties that cannot get resolved without the court’s assistance. For example, personal injury cases, family law, and contract disputes are all civil cases.
A criminal case will involve an individual getting charged with a crime. They are either misdemeanor or felony charges. A private individual or business cannot file criminal charges against another person. Instead, the prosecutor is able to do so. Examples of criminal charges include theft, fraud, domestic violence, driving under the influence, and murder.
You Were Arrested
If you were arrested, you are facing criminal, not civil charges. Therefore, you need a criminal lawyer to represent you in criminal court. However, you can face criminal charges without actually getting arrested. You might get a summons, citation, or warrant in this situation.
You Might Need a Civil and a Criminal Defense Lawyer
While these two areas of the law function separately, they sometimes overlap. For example, an individual gets arrested and faces DUI charges after getting into an accident with another vehicle. In this situation, a DUI is a criminal charge in the state of Virginia. The individual would hire a criminal defense lawyer to represent them in criminal court. However, the defendant may also need a civil lawyer. They hit another vehicle and caused damage or injuries to another individual. That individual may bring a civil suit for the loss they suffered. A civil lawyer will represent the defendant in this case.
Burden of Proof
Keep in mind that defendants can have different rulings in each court. For example, a defendant could get acquitted or have reduced charges from their Virginia criminal DUI case. However, they could still be liable for the other party’s damages and injuries in civil court.
This is because each court has a different burden of proof. In criminal court, the burden of proof is higher. The prosecutor must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. In a civil court, the plaintiff must prove “preponderance of the evidence” or that it is more than 50% likely that the defendant is liable. Because of this difference, the outcomes can be different.