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Who has Burden of Proof in Criminal and Civil Cases?

The success of a case rests on several elements for the prosecution and the defense. A good legal team, evidence and counter-evidence presented, a well-selected jury and a justice system that functions accordingly. Among those elements, the burden of proof holds the key to litigating or defending a case with ease or complexity.

What does “burden of proof” mean?

What is the Meaning of Burden of Proof?

Burden of proof describes the legal standard in which a person must prove their assertion in court. That burden must be satisfied for the court to establish that an assertion is a legal fact. Different standards apply depending on the type of case.

In criminal cases, the criminal standard of proof may apply to the following:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal law
  • Probable cause in the acquisition of a warrant or arrest proceeding
  • Reasonable belief as part of establishing probable cause
  • Reasonable suspicion in cases involving police stop and searches
  • Some credible evidence in cases necessitating immediate intervention, e.g., child protective services disputes
  • Some evidence in cases involving inmate discipline
  • Substantial evidence in many appellate cases

In civil cases, the standard of proof applies to the following:

  • Clear and convincing evidence in fraud in will disputes
  • Preponderance of the evidence in most civil cases

But which side shoulders this burden according to the law?

Where Does the Burden of Proof Rest?

gavel books and scale of justice on table

In a civil suit, the person filing has the burden of proving what they claim. The plaintiff must provide evidence of their claim, from a defective product in a liability case to an unsafe working environment in a personal injury case.

In a criminal trial, the prosecution takes on the burden of proof; in some cases, however, the burden shifts to the defendant’s legal team.

Burden of proof has two parts:

  1. Produce the evidence
  2. The standard to apply

The first part is clear enough, that the plaintiff must come up with evidence to back their claim and the prosecution must deliver evidence supporting their assertion; that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is what you may be familiar with, having likely heard it mentioned in any legal drama.

What are the 3 Standards of Proof?

The criminal standard of proof rests on three standards before the courts determine that a legal burden has been met.

In law, the three standards of proof are:

1.  Preponderance of the Evidence

A preponderance of evidence standard means that it is more likely, than not, that the facts are as one party claims. This standard of proof is generally used in a civil case and it is considered as the lowest standard.

The burden of proof is met under this standard when the plaintiff, who bears the burden in a civil case, convinces the court that there is more than a 50 percent chance that the claim is true. In short, it tips the scale.

Although this standard of proof is mostly used in civil cases, some criminal cases may apply it as well.

2. Clear and Convincing Evidence

The clear and convincing evidence standard is also generally used in civil cases where money is not the only matter at stake. These cases may include probate of wills, conservatorship, restraining orders and dependency cases.

This standard means that the evidence is more substantially or there is a high probability that is true than not true.

3. Reasonable Doubt

As the highest form of legal standard, reasonable doubt is applied in criminal cases. This criminal standard of proof rests on the prosecution’s side. They must be able to prove the defendant is guilty of the crime — without a doubt. That every piece of evidence they present in court must be so convincing that no reasonable juror would be able to question the guilt of the defendant’s; that they would not draw any other conclusion from the evidence.

Under this burden of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt must establish that the defendant is guilty. How does the prosecution achieve this burden?

A prosecution’s evidence in a criminal case must satisfy the:

  • Burden of production – to establish a fact in court, the prosecution must provide adequate evidence, and
  • Burden of persuasion – the prosecution must convince the jury of the veracity of every element in the case they are trying.

To clarify, beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean the prosecution must establish their case to a certainty. Because nothing is ever certain; even witness are never certain. What this standard allows is that a jury, after all the evidence or the facts of the case has been considered, will have but one logical conclusion: guilty or not guilty.

Why is the Burden of Proof Higher in a Criminal Case?

man in cuffs inside a holding cell

Whoever brings a claim to court, civil or criminal, has the burden of proof. This is why plaintiffs in civil suits must produce evidence and the prosecution must establish clear and convincing proof.

But why is the burden much higher in criminal proceedings than it is in a civil case?

In a criminal case, a person’s freedom is in jeopardy. So much more is at stake for criminal defendants; their civil liberties and personal freedom may be taken away. Whereas in civil cases, money is mostly the concern.

Some criminal cases, however, place the burden of proof on the defense. This is the case with affirmative defenses. When the defense team asserts that the accused is not criminally liable for their actions. The defense isn’t disputing that the actions of the accused, but they are claiming the following as reasons for negating criminal or even civil liability:

Meeting the Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

In a criminal case, the defendant is presumed innocent. To argue against this presumption requires the prosecution to prove their allegations with each and every element of the crime.

The prosecution must prove that the defendant:

  • Committed the crime
  • Had a particular intent

Once the prosecution manages to prove each element of the crime, the burden then shifts to the defense to poke holes in those arguments. The defense doesn’t need to disprove what the prosecution has presented in court. They need only to cast a shadow of doubt on the veracity of the evidence.

When claims are made against a person, civil or criminal in nature, the party making that claim must meet the burden of proof. Due process in the justice system requires that party to satisfy the standards in place and to establish guilt, liabilities or a legal reason to committing an illegal act.

About the Author


The information provided on this website is intended for general informational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific matter. The content on this blog is based on the knowledge and experience of the authors up to the date of publication, and it may not reflect the most current legal standards, regulations, or interpretations.

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