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Criminal and Civil Justice

Victims of child sexual abuse may pursue justice through both the criminal and civil justice systems. There are two significant differences between the two court systems: the burden of proof necessary, and the role of the victim in each process.
  • In a criminal case, conviction requires “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case liability must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
  • In a criminal case the state controls the proceedings and the victim acts as a witness for the prosecution. In a civil case, the victim controls essential decisions shaping the case, including whether to sue, accept a settlement offer or go to trial.

In the criminal justice system, the process begins after a crime has been committed and reported to law enforcement. If an arrest has been made and charges filed, the offender may be prosecuted and the crime is considered “a crime against the state.” The prosecutor represents the interests of the state, and the process is meant to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused offenders.

The civil justice system does not attempt to determine the innocence or guilt of an offender. Rather, it attempts to determine whether an offender or a third party is liable for the injuries sustained as a result of the crime. A civil court finding of liability usually means that the defendant must pay the victim or his/her family monetary damages. The civil justice system can provide victims with the monetary resources necessary to rebuild their lives, and can hold defendants who are found liable directly accountable to the victim.

Most crime victims have the right to file a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation from the perpetrator or from others whose unreasonable conduct gave rise to conditions that allowed the crime to occur. In civil cases, the plaintiff must prove there is a 51% or greater chance that the defendant committed all the elements of the wrong. It is possible to find the defendant liable in a civil case even though a verdict of “not guilty” was rendered in the criminal case.

 Criminal Lawsuits
Civil Lawsuits
Goal is to hold the defendant accountable to the state.
Goal is to hold the defendant accountable to the victim.
State prosecutes and controls the case.
Victim initiates and controls the case.
Victim is a witness and does not have the right to direct the prosecution of the case or to veto the prosecutor's decisions.
 Victim is a party and is entitled to all important information relating to the case, and can make decisions about the direction of the case such as settlement of the claim.
 State must prove that the perpetrator is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Victim must prove that it is more likely than not that the perpetrator is liable.
Perpetrator is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Victim and perpetrator appear as equals.
If perpetrator is found guilty he/she is subject to punishment such as probation or jail, and is held accountable to the state. The victim will not obtain money unless the court orders the defendant to pay restitution for the victim's out-of-pocket expenses. The court cannot order restitution for non-economic damages.
If the perpetrator is found liable he/she owes an obligation to the victim, such as money to compensate for medical and therapy expenses, psychological damage, damage to family relationships, and lost wages. The court can order the perpetrator to pay for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering and punitive damages.
If the perpetrator is found not guilty, the state cannot initiate a second prosecution.
The victim can sue the perpetrator in civil court regardless of whether the perpetrator has been found guilty in a criminal prosecution.


A criminal court may order a perpetrator to reimburse certain expenses incurred by a victim, his or her survivors, or those who have become responsible for the maintenance and support of a victim as a result of a crime. Unfortunately, even when a court orders restitution, it is often not collected. This lack of enforcement—combined with limitations on the type of damages that may be included in a restitution order—often results in restitution falling far short of meeting victims’ needs.

See Making Restitution Real, the National Center's toolkit on collecting court-ordered fees and penalties.

State Crime Victim Compensation

Compensation may be available to victims from a state’s crime victim compensation fund. Compensation funds are designed to reimburse victims for certain losses and expenses resulting from the crime, such as funeral expenses, medical bills, counseling fees, lost wages and others out-of-pocket costs incurred by the victims. The amount of compensation may be reduced by amounts that the victim has received from insurance or other sources. In addition, state laws provide limits on how much money can be given for an individual crime or a particular type of loss. There are also other restrictions on eligibility for victim compensation.

Statutes of Limitations (SOLs)

There are time limits set by law for filing criminal and civil lawsuits; these statutes of limitations vary from state to state. Any suit filed after the expiration of the SOL is “time-barred” and cannot proceed. In cases involving child victims and victims with repressed memories, the time in which victims can file may be extended. An attorney should be contacted about questions regarding statutes of limitations.

More information about filing a criminal or civil lawsuit is available from the National Crime Victim Bar Association.