Navigating the D.C. Civil Justice System

DC’s Civil Justice System 2017-10-24T03:20:36+00:00

In addition to the criminal justice system, victims can pursue remedies in the D.C. civil justice system. The criminal and civil justice systems are completely separate justice processes. Pursuing a civil case does not affect a criminal case­—civil cases can be filed before, during, or after a criminal trial. Similarly, even if a prosecutor does not pursue criminal charges against the accused, the victim still has a right to file a civil lawsuit against the accused as long as the time for doing so has not expired.

Through civil cases, victims can hold offenders accountable for their offenses and seek compensation known as “damages.” There are time limits on bringing a civil case, so victims who consider filing a lawsuit should talk to an attorney as soon as possible.

Issues to Consider When Deciding to Pursue a Civil Case

Filing a civil lawsuit may not always be the best course of action for crime victims. A victim should consider the following issues when deciding whether to pursue a civil suit.

  • There are very few free legal resources to help people pursue civil cases. Most likely, the victim will need to hire an attorney to litigate the civil case, which can be a great expense.
  • A civil lawsuit may take eight months or more, and the victim will need to spend time working on the case, including meeting with an attorney and attending court proceedings.
  • Civil court proceedings are most often public, so victims may lose their confidentiality and privacy during a civil case and may be required to testify during the trial.
  • Even if a victim wins a civil case it still may be difficult to collect a financial award from the defendant.

Key Differences Between Criminal Prosecutions and
Civil Lawsuits

Criminal Prosecution
  • Goal is to hold the defendant accountable to the community.
  • Government prosecutor controls the case. While the prosecutor may seek the victim’s input, the victim cannot require the prosecutor to handle the case a certain way.
  • The prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant might be sentenced to jail time and/or probation. The victim will not be awarded money, unless the court orders the defendant to pay for the victim’s expenses related to the crime.
Civil Lawsuit
  • Goal is to hold the defendant accountable to the victim.
  • Victim (the “plaintiff”) initiates and controls the case. As a party to the lawsuit, or someone named in the case, the plaintiff is entitled to all documents relating to the case and can make decisions regarding the case, such as agreeing to a settlement.
  • The plaintiff must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is “liable,” meaning responsible by law.
  • If the defendant is found liable, the defendant may be required to pay the victim for pain and suffering, any expenses related to the crime, and an additional financial penalty to punish the defendant for their actions. The court may also issue an order requiring the defendant to take certain actions and/or stay away from the victim in the future.

List adapted from the National Center for Victims of Crime