In almost every legal proceeding, there are generally two different sets of important rules that must be met before a judge decides who wins a case. These important rules, known as evidentiary standards and burden of proof, determine which party is responsible for showing enough evidence to either prove or disprove a particular claim and the amount of evidence necessary to do so.

Criminal cases and civil cases vary greatly in many respects, but evidence is generally always the key factor in deciding a case. In both criminal law cases and civil law cases, the parties have to convince a trier of fact (judge or jury) of their position.

Prosecutors in criminal cases must prove meet the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas plaintiffs in a civil case, such as for personal injury, must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. These two standards are not exactly clear to the average American person as to what they both mean or how they truly differ from one another, thus, further explanation is needed. 

What is the Preponderance of the Evidence Standard?

As noted above, the preponderance of the evidence evidentiary standard is the evidentiary standard required to be proven in civil law cases. This is a lower standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, which will be discussed below.

What preponderance of the evidence means is that the burden of proof is met if there is greater than a 50% chance that, based on all the reasonable evidence shown, plaintiff’s claims are true and defendant did in fact do the wrong that caused the damage.

Many legal scholars define the preponderance of the evidence standard as requiring a finding that at least 51% of the evidence shown favors the plaintiff’s story and outcome. Another way to think of the standard is to simply ask whether the plaintiff’s proposition is more likely to be true than not true.

The plaintiff meets this burden of proof by presenting physical and testimonial evidence to prove their case and the proposition that it is more likely to be true than not true that defendant caused the harm. On the other hand, the defendant does not have to do anything to prove or defend their case if the plaintiff fails to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. If the plaintiff does not meet this burden, then the defendant wins as a result.

What is the Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Standard?

In criminal law cases, the burden of proof always rests with the prosecution, as the defendant is always presumed innocent, until proven guilty. If the prosecution fails to prove guilt by beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant does not need to prove anything. The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is a much higher standard than the preponderance of the evidence standard.

Legal scholars generally describe the beyond a reasonable doubt standard as being met where the prosecutor demonstrates that there is no plausible reason to believe otherwise. If there is any real doubt after careful consideration of all the evidence presented, then this standard has not been met. However, this does not mean that the beyond a reasonable doubt standard is absolute, the prosecutor must prove the case to an extent that no reasonable person could reasonable doubt the defendant's guilt.

Although court’s do not assign or attach numbers to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, many scholars believe that it means 90%, 95%, or even 99% sure. If after all the evidence has been put forth the judge or jury has no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable, then the prosecutor has met the burden and proved the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty. On the other hand, if there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, then the defendant should be pronounced innocent.

An example of the difference between the two standards is the infamous O.J. Simpson case. In the criminal trial of the case, the prosecution had enough evidence to prove the preponderance of the evidence standard, but the defense brought forth enough evidence to raise reasonable doubts with the jurors.

Because there were reasonable doubts left at the end of the trial, O.J. Simpson was acquitted. However, when the case was brought in a civil law court via a wrongful death lawsuit, the preponderance of the evidence standard was met, and O.J. was found responsible for the murders and ordered to pay damages. It was much easier in this case to prove that O.J. was more than likely responsible for the murders than not, rather then to prove that he was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.

Do I Need Assistance from an Attorney?

Whether it is a civil or criminal case, the parties must meet or withstand certain burdens of proof to prevail in the case. Thus, having a qualified attorney’s assistance may help to address the overall strategy of convincing the judge or jury of your position and case.

An attorney will assist you in the representation and protection of your rights, interests, and defenses. If you have a civil law case, then a qualified civil attorney will help you to understand your options. If you are involved in a criminal law case however, then a criminal defense lawyer will help you address your concerns over your position in the matter.