Who Is Responsible For The Burden Of Proof In Civil Litigation?

Those who don’t practice law are often confused by the phrase “burden of proof” and how it applies to specific parties in court. According to Cornell University, the burden of proof is simply a standard by which a particular party must prove a face in the court of law. The burden of proof doesn’t fall on both defendant and prosecutor/plaintiff equally, though. Where does the burden of proof lie? Is there a difference between criminal and civil litigation? Here are the facts.

Where you live in the United States and which branch of law an attorney practices has nothing to do with burden of proof. For example, a New York business attorney working on behalf of a plaintiff in a civil case will have to meet the same burden of proof as a Los Angeles personal injury attorney working on behalf of a client in a different civil case.

Regardless of whether a particular case is criminal or civil, the burden of proof still falls on the accuser. In criminal cases, this is the prosecutor. In civil cases, it’s the plaintiff. The defendant has the right to defend, but they need not prove their innocence to be found not guilty of criminal or civil liability. 

However, the burden of proof is far greater in criminal court than civil court. What does this mean? Let’s say you’re a prosecutor trying to prove that the defendant committed a murder. Law requires you to prove these facts beyond reasonable doubt.

That means that the prosecutor must completely convince a jury that the facts mean the defendant committed the murder. If there is any room for doubt, a jury must find a defendant “not guilty.”

Now let’s say you’re the plaintiff in a civil case. You’re trying to prove that your neighbor’s dog took a bite out of your thigh. The burden of proof still exists — and the onus is on you to make the case — but you don’t have to prove the facts beyond reasonable doubt.

For example, California Civil Jury Instruction 200 says: “A party must persuade you [the jury], by the evidence presented in court, that what he or she is required to prove is more likely to be true than not true. This is referred to as ‘the burden of proof.’”

In other words, the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s counsel still must convince the jury (in cases where a jury is required) or the judge (in cases where a jury is not required) of the defendant’s guilt. Should the jury or judge be convinced, then it is likely (according to law) that the defendant is actually guilty. Or rather, it is more likely than unlikely. That’s the burden of proof for civil cases. 

This is unfortunate for many defendants who appear guilty but aren’t. It’s also unfortunate for the judicial process in general, because the low burden of proof for civil litigation is one of the reasons why there are so many frivolous cases in the United States.