Law and Legal Research Starter

Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

Determining if your issue is civil or criminal in nature simply requires understanding the elements of the case. This short YouTube video describes in slides the differences between civil and criminal cases.

Source: Warrington, Jeanette. (2016, February 3). Civil & Criminal Cases [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved from

Civil or Criminal

Civil Law

 Civil law issues are generally disputes between people, but also sometimes with the government. The disputes often take the form of lawsuits where you sue or are sued by someone else. In civil actions, the person bringing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, is asking the court to rule in their favor so that the person or party will be compensated for damages caused by the alleged action of the other person or defendant. The suit can also be made to order the defendant to do something. Usually, the person is not put in prison by the court in a civil case.

Civil law categories are administration, business, civil rights, construction, contracts, education, elder, employment, family, health, housing, wills and estates, intellectual property, juvenile, property, tax, and tort (personal injury) law.

Criminal Law

The issue is a criminal one if the law has been violated. Crimes are viewed as offenses against the people, so the charges are brought to the court by a government prosecutor. Crimes are punishable by imprisonment and/or fines.

Look at the crime named and then go from there. Narrow your search with indexes and searches about your topic. If you are using a printed material, go to the index of the work to look for your topic or crime. If you are using a legal database, Website, or a general search engine, try looking by keywords or subject if the site allows that.

Keywords and Subjects

Keywords and Subject Searches

Dictionaries and legal thesaurus are helpful tools for locating keywords and subjects related to your legal question. Before conducting your own legal research, take some time to familiarize yourself with these resources as the definitions and terminology found in both could prove useful in defining the focus of your research. Use dictionaries to define an area of law and comprehend subjects. Use legal thesauruses to narrow your subjects by using synonyms and antonyms to describe keywords and content. The OLLU library has both dictionaries and legal thesauruses in print to aid your legal research.

Conducting Legal Research

1. Your Legal Question?

The first step in conducting research is as simple as defining what information you are looking to find and why you need this information? A full understanding of the issue involved can affect the quality of the research you conduct. Legal research can be overwhelmingly complex. Understanding what you are searching for and why you are doing it will help you find the appropriate resources you need. If you write down your purpose and what you hope to accomplish, it will make the task easier. Then write down any questions you have in being able to complete your goal.

2. Resources to Use

Determining the subjects your issue involves will help you determine what resources you should use. If you want a general overview of that portion of the law, go to that area such as family law. Secondary sources such as hornbooks, supplements, and Nutshells give great overviews of the area of the law while treatises give everything that author understood about the law and are much more in-depth. If you are looking for what the law itself says, go to a specific article, statute, administrative regulation, or local ordinance. If you want to find how the courts apply the law to situations, find cases using LexisNexis Academic or printed case law digest like Federal Practice Digest and Texas Digest.

3. Searching Resources

All resources differ in the type and scope of information provided. Understanding the nature of your resource will help you search that resource more effectively. If you are seeking primary law resources, then these resources will be more specific. Statutes, regulations, and codes each have their own resource where this information can be found in. Secondary law resources such as encyclopedias, digests, and Hornbooks typically have indexes and detailed table of contents. Use these aids to assist you in locating more general information on your subject or question.

4. Retrieving Information

Once you have searched your resource and located relevant information, then it is essential that you locate that information. Many legal resources, particularly in primary law are denoted by legal citations. Citations are just the format the legal industry uses to identify and classify the vast amount of legal content available. Understanding that resources and materials are identified by these citations can help you locate the information you need quickly and efficiently.

Rules of Procedure

Online Legal Research Databases

Local Law Libraries

An excellent place to continue your legal research is at a law library. These are libraries which are usually connected to a law school or courthouse.