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What is the Civil Justice System?
The civil justice system is a forum for parties, who bear some responsibility for the crime, to resolve their disputes. These complaints are filed by individuals (known as Plaintiffs or Petitioners) who seek to hold the offender (known as Defendants or Respondents) accountable for committing the crime or allowing it to happen. In civil cases, the Defendant/Respondent is not entitled to an attorney. Most often, a civil court’s finding of liability means that the defendant must pay the victim and/or the victim’s family money for any harm or damages. In this respect, the civil justice system can provide victims with more financial means needed to help rebuild their lives. Victims often use civil justice awards to pay for services they need, such as medical care, counseling, or repairing or replacing property. Going through the civil system is not dependent on police involvement.
What is the Criminal Justice System?
The criminal justice system is when the government (not the victim) brings criminal charges against an offender (known as the Defendant). These cases always begin with police involvement such as a 911 call, an arrest, or an investigation. In the criminal system, a victim is considered a witness for the prosecution rather than a party to the case. The two parties in the case are the Government (prosecution) and the Defendant; the Government may or may not take the victim’s wishes into account when making its case against the Defendant. Depending on the local laws and the charges, the Defendant may be entitled to an attorney for his/her case. Since Defendants may have committed more serious infractions and, therefore, can face more serious consequences, the Government must prove a Defendant’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.” Typical sentences include probation, time in jail or prison, or time already served. Sometimes offenders are ordered to seek counseling or participate in intervention programs for battering, substance abuse, or other crime-related behavior problems.
What to consider when thinking about Civil versus Criminal systems:
- Do you want to report your crime?
- Are you worried about your perpetrator being arrested or going jail?
- How will you prepare if you must see your perpetrator in court? Consider the self care techniques we have here and listed here.
- Do you have a safety plan while you’re seeking legal remedies?
When should a victim speak to an attorney?
If you are the victim of a crime, it is always a good idea to contact an attorney who can provide you with legal advice regarding the specifics and strength of your case.
To find attorneys and other legal information:
Women’sLaw.org provides legal information to help support women in domestic violence situations. They have helpful content on their site as well as an email helpline.
The Legal Aid Society of DC provides free or low cost legal services to those in poverty in the District. For more information, please visit our ConnectDirectory and search for “legal services” by state or https://www.legalaiddc.org/.
The National Crime Victim Bar Association is the nation’s first professional association of attorneys and expert witnesses dedicated to helping victims seek justice through the civil system
Contact the DC Victim Hotline by phone at 1-844-443-5732 or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services that can help you or a loved one understand these systems.