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Burden of Proof

Burden of proof refers to the legal standard a plaintiff must show in order to satisfy a claim. After meeting the required burden of proof, the plaintiff will have established that claim as a legal fact.

The idea of meeting the burden of proof is deeply embedded in the American legal system. In criminal law, it is based on the premise that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to imprison the innocent. In civil matters, it ensures that citizens do not incur undue penalties or hardships as a result of legal proceedings.

Various Standards of Proof

Judges hear many types of court cases each day. Naturally, some have a more serious nature than others, which is why different burdens of proof exist. The higher the stakes, the greater the burden of proof for the plaintiff or prosecutor. The following list highlights the most commonly used burdens of proof.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

In any criminal matter, the jury must weigh all evidence to determine a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that jurors should be so swayed by the evidence that they have no more than a very slight or “reasonable” doubt concerning the defendant’s guilt. The standard of beyond a reasonable doubt does not imply that jurors have no reservations remaining. Rather, it’s understood that a reasonable person would come to the exact conclusion when presented with the same facts and evidence.

No higher burden than beyond a reasonable doubt exists in the U.S. court system. The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our legal system, with the 14th Amendment guaranteeing that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Preponderance of the Evidence

Defendants have less at stake during civil matters, as their freedom is not in jeopardy. Accordingly, courts require a lesser burden of proof known as preponderance of the evidence for civil cases. To meet that burden, plaintiffs must demonstrate that there is a greater than 50% chance that what they have alleged is true. Some refer to the preponderance of the evidence standard as “more probable than not.”

Individuals may assert affirmative defenses in most civil matters. Affirmative defenses are those designed to negate or reduce civil penalties. When asserting an affirmative defense during a civil trial, defendants also use preponderance of the evidence to prove their points.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

Clear and convincing evidence requires a greater burden than preponderance of the evidence yet is a lesser burden than beyond a reasonable doubt. With clear and convincing evidence, plaintiffs must show certain facts are “highly likely.” It is not sufficient to merely prove that an event was more likely to have occurred than not.

Courts reserve the clear and convincing standard for instances that require a higher burden of proof than what is provided for by a preponderance of the evidence. This normally happens when a defendant faces a potentially high degree of loss. This could involve an enormous loss of money and/or property, or restriction of one’s civil liberties. Some examples of cases that may require clear and convincing evidence include:

  • probating wills
  • hearings that involve removing someone from life support
  • child custody cases, particularly those that may result in the removal of children from a home
  • claims alleging fraud

Meeting the Burden of Proof

The person bringing the suit is always responsible for meeting the required burden of proof. The jurors in any case have the responsibility for determining whether that burden was met. During a bench trial, that function would fall to the judge.

Plaintiffs may attempt to meet the burden of proof standard by doing any or all of the following:

  • obtaining sworn witness testimonies
  • entering certain documents or photographs into evidence
  • providing expert testimony
  • showing the jury official documents such as police reports

Evidence to Meet the Burden of Proof

Not all evidence is satisfactory for meeting the burden of proof. In criminal matters, prosecutors must also provide exculpatory evidence, or evidence that would help the defendant prove his or her innocence. Jurors then weigh the exculpatory evidence against any other evidence to determine if prosecutors have met their respective burden of proof.

Whether you face civil or criminal charges, the burden of proof lies with your accuser. The role of an attorney is to protect your rights and ensure the accuser meets the correct burden of proof. Are you concerned that tainted evidence or a failure to disclose exculpatory evidence might tip the scales unfavorably against you? If so, please contact a nursing home abuse lawyer to ensure your rights are protected.

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