Except for the type of cases in which they are used, settlements and plea deals seem quite similar. In both cases, the two parties reach an agreement, and they avoid the cost and inconvenience of a trial. What are the similarities and differences? Is it accurate to say that they are analogous concepts?

  • 3
    All abstractions are leaky. Enhance your question for a better answer.
    – Joshua
    Feb 10 at 16:10
  • 1
    Is an elephant the same as my SUV? Well, they're both grey and they both have a trunk. But only one of them has wheels. Equality (or similarity) needs to be scoped before it can be answerable.
    – Flater
    Feb 12 at 2:20

2 Answers 2


They both end the litigation by way of agreement.

But a settlement does not generally result in a court order recognizing the terms of the settlement. The only court order may be one dismissing the case by consent. All of the important details will be in the settlement agreement between the parties.

In the criminal context, a plea deal is just a stepping stone to actually making a plea before the court, admitting in open court to the elements of the offence, and submitting oneself to the discretion of the judge for sentencing. The prosecutor may have agreed to ask for a particular sentence, or the defence and prosecution may make joint sentencing submissions, but the judge is not bound by these.

Whether you want to call these analogous is a matter of opinion and it will depend on the context in which you are drawing the analogy.


No. Or at least not always, not everywhere.

In a plea bargain, the defendant admits to some or all of a crime in the expectation that doing so would cause a lower sentence. There are some places where a defendant can plead no contest rather than guilty or not guilty, but a plea bargain would usually involve a guilty plea.

  • Plea bargains may be a labor-saving measure by the prosecution and courts, giving the defendant a discount for not making the state present the evidence in court. There are jurisdictions which try to discourage this kind of plea bargain -- if the prosecution has the evidence, it should seek a full conviction. If not, it should drop the case without preconditions!
  • Plea bargains may involve one of several criminals turning state's evidence, testifying against former associates. Since not having to testify against oneself is a fundamental human right, this may be the only way to get testimony in some cases.

In a civil settlement, usually the sides do not admit that one or the other was right or wrong, just that agreeing to the payment is more reasonable than going to trial, with all the risk and expense that brings.

So a defendant entering a plea bargain becomes a criminal with a criminal record, while a litigant entering a settlement becomes someone who has put business sense over pride.

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