Rethinking the Civil-Criminal Distinction


Posted: 27 Jul 2022

See all articles by Lauren Sudeall

Lauren Sudeall

Vanderbilt University - Vanderbilt Law School

Date Written: July 21, 2022


In the legal world, we operate on the premise that our civil and criminal justice systems are distinct. As a result of this siloed approach, courts, court rules, procedural protections, legal services, and legal communications typically turn or focus exclusively on one side of this divide or the other. Yet individuals’ lived experiences do not always fall cleanly along those lines—they may experience sanctions differently than the law has categorized them or encounter one situation that gives rise to civil and criminal legal issues. Today, civil sanctions are increasingly punitive, while fines and incarceration are no longer distinctly criminal consequences. These realities undermine historical rationales for the civil-criminal divide and make the justifications for that divide increasingly incoherent.

The civil-criminal divide presents more than a conceptual or theoretical problem. The rigid line between civil and criminal legal issues prevents us from addressing all facets of an individual’s situation in a single court system. Instead, we require that people have multiple interactions with civil and criminal court systems, which can drain both their time and their resources. It becomes harder for them to address or protect against civil consequences arising from a criminal charge or conviction. By failing to inform people engaged with one sphere of the system about legal problems in the other sphere, we lose critical opportunities for intervention and education—particularly among populations in need of assistance. Because people do not silo their problems into criminal and civil categories, they face additional barriers to obtaining assistance: people go to the wrong legal systems and find courts and legal providers who may be ill-equipped to redirect them. The resulting frustration and the inability to find the help they need may give some people a cramped view of the law’s potential to address their problems.

In this chapter, I explain how the civil-criminal distinction influences our understanding of the legal system and explore the problems it creates for litigants and those assisting them. In doing so, I employ a broad definition of “evidence-based” reform. In my view, evidence relevant to criminal justice reform consists not only of quantitative data, such as the likelihood of recidivism and incarceration rates, but also of qualitative and even perceptual data, which shed light on how the system works (or doesn’t) and how and why quantitative data are generated. In the context of this chapter, I focus specifically on how the civil-criminal distinction fails to align with—and may even exacerbate—the lived experience of many system-impacted individuals, demonstrable primarily through qualitative data. I encourage readers to question the civil-criminal distinction and to ask: What would happen if we didn’t view the two as distinct? To what degree are the differences between civil and criminal justice a function of the separation we have chosen to create rather than any inherent distinction? And is the civil-criminal divide born more from a need to organize the courts and service providers than it is to resolve problems most effectively for litigants? I conclude that a merged vision of civil and criminal justice may better align with the understanding and experiences of system-impacted individuals and may better equip the legal system to respond to their problems.

In this chapter I call on systemic actors and service providers to minimize the different treatment of civil and criminal issues and to collaborate to the greatest extent possible, wherever the civil-criminal distinction creates barriers to justice for individuals or inefficiencies for courts. Even if doctrinal divisions persist, policy makers can engage in practical applications of this idea, rethinking how to structure the resolution of legal issues, provide legal services, and disseminate legal education to individuals and communities.

Keywords: civil justice, criminal justice, access to justice, criminal law, civil law, legal system

Suggested Citation

Sudeall, Lauren, Rethinking the Civil-Criminal Distinction (July 21, 2022). in TRANSFORMING CRIMINAL JUSTICE: AN EVIDENCE-BASED AGENDA FOR REFORM (NYU Press 2022), Available at SSRN:

Lauren Sudeall (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Vanderbilt Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203
United States

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