Evidence is the beating heart of any legal case, whether civil or criminal. The “burden of proof,” as a legal concept, determines whether the totality of evidence feeds a claim or starves it. To prepare for court, self-represented litigants must assemble evidence that can bear the weight of their claims or defenses.
Civil vs Criminal Burden of Proof
The standards for proving a legal claim are different for a civil case and a criminal case. The burden of proof is very high in criminal cases because a defendant could go to prison. Prosecutors in criminal cases must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. That’s the highest standard. The defendant’s guilt must be almost certain.
Plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, on the other hand, must prove their claims by a preponderance of evidence. Physical freedom is not at stake, so there is a less stringent standard in civil cases. To meet this standard, the evidence must simply convince a reasonable person that a plaintiff’s assertions are more likely than not to be true and valid.
Burden of Proof for the Plaintiff
As the plaintiff in a civil action, the burden to prove your claim falls on you. After all, you filed the lawsuit, so you have to prove your defendant is liable to you. The good news is that you have the lowest standard — 51% of the evidence on your side.
The preparation of your lawsuit requires identifying certain rights that were violated, resulting in injury to you. Presumably, you have evidence to show how your defendant harmed or injured you, but you must present sufficient evidence to overrule most of the doubt in a juror’s mind.
Evidence may come from many sources, including witness testimony, documents, photographs, medical records, police reports, and anything else that could strengthen your case. You can’t present too much evidence, so long as it is relevant to the case and not repetitive. You want to do everything you can to resolve questions a judge or jury might have about your legal claim.
Burden of Proof for the Defendant
If you’re named as the defendant in a civil action, you do not have to prove anything. That burden falls on the plaintiff’s shoulders. If a plaintiff fails to make a convincing case, then the judge or jury should decide in favor of you. As the defendant, you could choose to do nothing and hope the plaintiff’s case fails to meet the “preponderance of evidence” standard. A better option is to inject doubt into the plaintiff’s arguments and evidence. As a practical matter, you then take on the burden of disproving the plaintiff’s case.
You could up the ante and respond with a counterclaim that accuses the plaintiff of harming you. You could also raise affirmative defenses. As a defendant, you have the burden of proof on your counterclaims and affirmative defenses. Regardless, to prevail, you must prove by a preponderance of evidence that your positions have more support than the plaintiff’s.
Success on the Preponderance of Evidence
Some facts are more subject to interpretation than others. For this reason, a civil plaintiff should present as much evidence as possible to prove the asserted facts. Although some issues in your case may remain unclear, anything that removes the doubts of a judge or jury could create a tipping point that wins a verdict in your favor.
If a judge is deciding your case without a jury, then he or she is tasked with evaluating every piece of evidence. A judge should hand you a victory when the bulk of evidence supports your legal position. But in a jury trial, the judge will provide them instructions on deciding whether your evidence outweighs their doubts about your case. Those instructions could tip the balance either for or against you, so it’s important to know what they’ll be before going to trial.
Don’t Take Anything for Granted
Almost everyone headed to court feels wronged in some way. You’re the injured plaintiff or the falsely accused defendant. You may feel the preponderance of evidence is firmly on your side, but don’t assume the judge or jury will view the evidence the same way. Litigation is not about your feelings or beliefs. Judges and juries strive to make rational decisions based on what appears to be real and true.
So, preparation should always be your goal as a plaintiff or defendant. Study the laws governing the claims and defenses in your case. Then, make sure your evidence addresses each point in the law. It may be common sense to you, but take nothing for granted. Prove everything your case demands.
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