Every legal case has its own standard that guides a judge or jury in deciding who wins. This standard is called the “burden of proof.” Think of it as the level of and type of evidence required to win a case. There are three burdens of proof in our justice system.

Burden of Proof in Most Civil Cases – Preponderance of the Evidence

A civil case is brought by one individual against another individual. For example, two people make a written contract for Person A to paint Person B’s house for $1,000. Person A paints the house, but person B doesn’t pay, and Person A sues for payment under the contract.

The normal burden of proof in a civil case, is a preponderance of the evidence, which means, is it more likely than not that the person with the burden of proof presented sufficient evidence to satisfy that burden of proof? This is the lowest burden of proof imposed in legal cases.

Burden of Proof in Some Civil Cases – Clear and Convincing Evidence

In some civil cases, a higher burden of proof is imposed, called “clear and convincing evidence.” This is evidence that is sufficiently clear and direct to lead the judge to conclude, with reasonable certainty, that the evidence weighs in favor of the person with the burden of proof. This burden of proof applies to weightier matters, such as custody matters. Proof that a change of custody is in a child’s best interest must be presented by clear and convincing evidence.

Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases – Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Criminal cases are those in which the government accuses an individual of breaking a law, and in which the person may be sentenced to imprisonment or receive other penalties. The accused is presumed innocent unless the government proves his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden of proof is the highest penalty imposed in our justice system. Note that some doubt is allowed, but reasonable doubt is satisfied if the judge or jury has “an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge”. Another way to think of it is a “near certainty”.

Why does the burden of proof matter?

The burden of proof determines who wins or loses a case.  The party with the burden of proof, whether an individual or the government, wins the case if the evidence satisfies the burden of proof, but loses if the evidence is insufficient. For example, the house painter does not get paid, or custody does not change. In a criminal case, the defendant goes free and cannot be charged with the same crime again.

The burden of proof does not change when an individual represents themselves. Anyone who represents themselves in a legal matter is presumed to understand how the burden of proof works, and is held to that same standard.

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