What Is Restitution In Criminal Law And When Does It Apply?

Restitution isn’t purely a legal term, so you may have heard it used from time to time in other circumstances far removed from the courts and criminals and defendants among us. It means something similar in either case. Restitution involves setting something back to rights. It means restoring something damaged or lost to the person whose it was. It’s also a process for compensating victims.

In law, we often refer to restitution using another word: “damages.” Either pretty much means the same thing. A criminal defendant may be obligated to pay damages or restitution fees to a victim after a court case has ended. This isn’t the same thing as a fine, which is something you pay the court or government to reimburse them for the time they had to spend prosecuting the case.

For example, if you injured another party in a barroom brawl that you started, you might be forced to pay restitution to cover the victim’s medical expenses. In order for restitution to remain applicable, the victim must prove that those expenses were incurred, up to and including monies lost if the victim’s capacity to produce at work was affected.

Restitution is considered an “equitable” remedy if the court system can find a money trail. If it can trace money owed, then a constructive trust or equitable lien will be set up in order to repay those monies. A constructive trust occurs when one party holds property for another party. An equitable lien pretends one party from benefitting from another.

Restitution is considered a “legal” remedy when the money trail can’t be followed and the property can’t be rightfully identified. Legal remedies are often applied for unjust enrichment or other forms of personal liability. Unjust enrichment is much as it sounds: it occurs when one party receives any kind of benefit from through unlawful or illegal means.

Restitution is a form of compensation primarily used in criminal courts; sort of like a form of civil suit within the criminal legal system. That said, if you don’t acquire restitution through the criminal court system, then you may still be able to bring a civil suit against the defendant because they require a lower standard of proof.