Burden of proof differs for civil, criminal cases

Q: What does burden of proof mean in legal proceedings?



A: It’s the level or standard of proof that has to be met to succeed in a legal proceeding, and it is different, depending on whether it is a civil or criminal matter.


In a civil (non-criminal) court case, the burden of proof is usually “on the balance of probabilities.” The best way to illustrate that standard is to imagine one of those scales with pans on either side: the side that tips down, even a little, would illustrate a balance of probabilities. 


In a civil suit where somebody is seeking money from somebody else for a wrongdoing, a judge might have to make a ruling on the evidence on a question. Did the negligence of Mr. Brown in leaving ice on his doorstep cause the fall of Mr. White (and White’s injury)? If it is more likely that it did than that it didn’t, Mr. White as the plaintiff will have met the burden of proof.


It is generally the plaintiff, the person who takes the other to court and says he has suffered a wrong or an injury, who must bring forward evidence to make his case, and to prove it on the balance of probabilities.


In a criminal case, the onus is on the crown prosecutor. The police generally lay a charge,often on the advice of the prosecutor, who is a lawyer actings on behalf of the crown. Then the file goes to the prosecutor’s office to be proven in court.


In criminal cases, the burden of proof is higher. To be found guilty, the crown prosecutor must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. 


When bringing evidence forward in a criminal trial, the crown must prove the various elements of the offence, including identity, place, date, time of day, and the various aspects of a given crime (such as intent, use of a weapon, etc.)


If there can be no other logical conclusion, based on the evidence, that the person on trial is guilty of the charge, then the prosecutor has met the required burden of proof and the court should find the person guilty. 


Often the most important job of a defence lawyer will be to raise a reasonable doubt to place circumstances before the court that could provide another reasonable explanation for what happened.


In civil trials, usually money is at stake and it is one side’s word against the other. The most convincing and thorough one wins. 


In criminal matters, the stakes are higher: losing one’s liberty, obtaining a criminal record and other severe consequences.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The views expressed are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to McDougall Gauley LLP. Contact: [email protected]