Criminal vs Civil Cases

Sometimes to a layperson it is not very clear as to how a matter is to be dealt with. The problem sometimes arises out of the confusion between civil and criminal matters. People often approach an attorney for a matter involving a criminal element and ask whether the attorney can “prosecute” such an individual. Below is a brief overview of criminal vs civil matters, how they differ and some examples of each.


Dealing with a criminal matter

Should you wish to report or prosecute someone for an act involving a criminal element, this will need to be reported to your nearest police station.

Such a matter may be:



  • a worker who steals from you or your company;
  • a banking transaction by an individual without your consent (fraud)
  • intentional damage to you property, etc.

In the above examples an individual who commits such offences may be reported at the police station and criminal proceedings may be instituted against them.

Such criminal proceedings are carried out by the State and the reporting person (the complainant) may be used as a witness in such proceedings. The complainant is not the person who is instituting the proceedings. The complainant will also not receive any compensation for the loss suffered as a result of the crime unless the complainant instructs the prosecutor to attend to compensation in the matter. However to get such compensation, usually a civil claim may have to be instituted.

The criminal case will have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and as a result, the onus (or difficulty) of proof is much higher.

If the accused person is found guilty, they may be sentenced to a fine payable to the state or imprisonment or both.


Dealing with a civil matter

In the above examples of criminal matters, a civil element is still present as the complainant *in this instance the Plaintiff) would have suffered some form of loss, be it financial, or physical (in the instance of damage to property).

Should the Plaintiff wish to recoup the damages, they may do so by instituting a civil claim against the individual who caused the damage. This will be done via the issuing and serving of a summons against the individual, with the assistance of an attorney.

A civil case only needs to be proven on a balance of probability, which is a much lower, or easier burden of proof.

Should an individual institute civil proceedings, the defendant will not automatically be held criminally liable.

The civil and criminal process is thus different as well as the onus of proof in each.


Civil and Criminal proceedings simultaneously

It is possible to have both civil and criminal proceedings running against the same person for the same thing at the same time. This is how it usually transpires in situations as listed above.



Feel free to contact us for assistance in a civil matter or for advice on how to proceed with the institution of criminal proceedings.