What is a Standard of Proof?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The standard of proof in a court case determines the quantity of evidence needed to prove a case. The more serious the case, the higher the standard of proof. Satisfying the standard is known as “meeting the burden of proof” and the responsibility for meeting the burden of proof varies, depending on the nature of the case. As a general rule, the complainant in the case is charged with presenting the evidence to prove the case, while the defendant can choose to present exonerating information, but is not required to do so.

It is up to the judge or the jury to determine if the standard of proof has been met.
It is up to the judge or the jury to determine if the standard of proof has been met.

The highest standard of proof comes in criminal cases, where the consequences of the case can be quite serious in some instances. For a criminal case, people must prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. When the jury is finished hearing the facts, they must determine that the evidence proves, beyond the doubts of any hypothetical “reasonable person,” that the defendant committed the crime. In such cases, defendants can present information designed to cast doubt on the case to undermine the prosecution's case.

The more serious the case, the higher the standard of proof.
The more serious the case, the higher the standard of proof.

In civil cases with potentially serious consequences, like cases involving child custody disputes, the standard of proof is “clear and convincing” evidence. In these types of cases, the evidence laid out must provide compelling evidence for the claims being made by the plaintiff in the case. However, the standard is not as stringent as that involved in cases where the burden of proof requires people to demonstrate “without a reasonable doubt.”

The lowest standard of proof is “preponderance of the evidence,” in a case where the evidence shows that the case most probably occurred as stated by the claimant. This is a standard used in minor civil cases where the outcome of the case is not potentially life-changing. Defendants in these cases can present defenses undermining the claims made to generate questions about whether the preponderance of the evidence standard has actually been met.

In cases with a jury, the judge will explain the evidentiary standard in the case to the jury during the jury instructions. Jurors can ask for clarification from the judge if they are not sure how to apply the standard when they are deliberating over the matters under discussion. The goal of setting clear standards for evidence is to ensure consistency in the court system, providing a fair trial for everyone who seeks legal remedies in court or who is brought into court to answer to charges.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@strawCake - I agree with you. I also think there should be different levels of the standard of proof for criminal cases. For example, I think in a murder case that could result in the accused being put to death, the standard of proof needs to be extremely high.

I think it would be better to let a guilty person go free because of too little evidence than to put an innocent person to death. That's just my opinion though, I'm sure some people wouldn't agree with that.


I think in major civil cases the standard of proof should be the same as in a criminal case. Even though a civil case doesn't result in jail time, it can still really damage someone life if they lose.

A lot of people sue and are awarded a lot of money in damages. What if the person who is supposed to pay those damages isn't actually guilty? From my understanding, the court can get the money for those damages from the defendants wages and assets! Imagine having to give away all that money if you weren't actually guilty!


@Latte31- I believe that the judge usually gives the jury instructions so you really can’t second guess a jury because they are the ones that are reliving the trial.

I do want to say that with respect to civil cases the proof threshold is different. The civil standard of proof is generally the preponderance of the evidence which translates to more than 50% likely that the person committed the crime.

This is why many people that are found not guilty in a criminal trial could later be convicted for the same offense in a civil trial because the standard of proof is so much lower in a criminal trial.

In a criminal trial you could have the person’s freedom and in some cases their life at stake which is why there is such a big difference.


I realize that criminal standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, but I wonder if some juries expect more evidence and develop such a high standard with respect to forensic evidence that they acquit people of crimes that they are clearly guilty of because there may not be a murder weapon even though the circumstantial case is strong.

I think that some juries are becoming accustomed to these crime shows in which every case offers perfect evidence and they have the same expectations in real life. This is a little concerning to me because we used to convict people without DNA evidence and now I think that the criminal defense attorneys have the upper hand because juries are expecting more evidence for convictions.

I mean, do we have to have a video tape of a person committing a crime in order to convict a defendant? I feel that some jurors misinterpret what we mean by beyond a reasonable doubt. It really does not mean beyond an absolute doubt.

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