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.
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.
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.