The legal system has two main parts. It breaks down into civil and criminal matters. Criminal cases are those where someone breaks a criminal law, such as theft or murder. They carry stiff penalties, such as jail time, and go on your criminal record. The state brings charges against you in a criminal case.
The North Carolina Judicial Branch explains civil cases are between two individuals or entities. They involve laws outside the criminal system. The penalties are monetary. The state is usually not a part of these cases unless it is one of the parties.
As mentioned, criminal cases have much more severe penalties. You could go to jail, lose privileges, and pay large fines. In a civil case, the penalties are monetary. Sometimes, a judge may also issue an order to stop doing something or to do something, such as stop all contact with another person or allow someone to use your property.
Many times, a civil case involves someone who breached a contract or failed to do something they had an obligation to do. It can involve family matters, such as child support or divorce. It could be property-related, such as a construction contract issue or an easement dispute.
Criminal cases can take much more time than civil cases. Often civil cases will settle outside of court. In a criminal situation, this would be equivalent to a plea arrangement. Small claims civil cases often take a very short time to resolve, with an average of one court hearing needed.
Both civil and criminal cases can involve a trial. However, it is much more common in criminal cases. Most civil cases will not require a long-drawn-out trial process. Although, both types of cases can use juries.
The civil part of the legal system is often something most people will have experience with at one time or another. If you file bankruptcy or you have a car accident, you may end up in civil court. It is usually less intimidating than criminal court because there are no threats of punishment as a penalty.