The key principle of a fair and balanced justice system is that no one is above the law. While it is vitally important that everyone be held equally accountable for their actions, there is another side to this that is often overlooked. When a person accused of wrongdoing gets the chance to speak in their defense, what burdens should be placed on them to prove the allegations are false?

Every legal proceeding has two sides. The party bringing the complaint forward is called the plaintiff in civil cases and the complainant in criminal cases. The party facing blame is referred to as the defendant. When legal proceedings commence, who starts the conversation? Is the plaintiff tasked with proving the defendant’s guilt, or is it the defendant who is expected to verify their innocence? This legal concept is known as the burden of proof. Depending on whether you are facing a civil or criminal trial, how this is handled is quite different.

Burden of Proof Explained

When someone has the burden of proof, it is their duty to prove to a court of law that their assertion against another party is legitimate. In civil or criminal cases, this responsibility falls on either the plaintiff or complainant. While a defendant may find themselves having to verify evidence in their defense, like providing an alibi or refuting assumptions that hurt their case, it is not their responsibility to exonerate themselves from the accusations that brought them to trial. This legal standard is the origin of the term “innocent until proven guilty.”

Differences in Burden of Proof

While the burden of proof always falls on the plaintiff or complainant, the severity of the burden — the effort they must go through to prove their claim against a defendant — is vastly different between civil and criminal trials.

In criminal cases, the complainant that brings charges forward is a government entity. Whether at the state or federal level, the complainants in these cases are typically referred to as “the People.” To prove a defendant is guilty of charges in criminal court, the complainant needs to show they committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For the case to result in a conviction, there can be no other rational explanation than the defendant’s participation in the alleged crimes. This burden of proof would be considered exceptionally high.

On the other hand, in civil cases, the plaintiff simply needs to prove their claim by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that if the plaintiff can prove to a judge or jury that their claim against a defendant is more likely to be true than not, that would be sufficient basis for receiving a judgement in their favor. Meeting this burden of proof is still no easy feat, but it has a lower standard than that of criminal trials.

Can Cases Be Both Civil and Criminal?

Both civil and criminal cases can be brought forward for the same incident. Most often, the same evidence will be used in both instances. The plaintiff would have to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt for the criminal case, and meet the preponderance of evidence for the civil suit.

The outcome of the civil suit and criminal trial is not always the same, such as it was in the case of The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. Orenthal James Simpson, better known as O.J., was put on trial by the State of California for the first-degree murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. After he was acquitted of the murders, he was sued for wrongful death by the family of Ronald Goldman, a case he lost. While the prosecution could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that O.J. committed the murders, the likelihood that he did was enough to convince a civil court there was a “preponderance of evidence” and to rule in the plaintiff’s favor.

The NAEGELI Advantage

Whether you are bringing forth a case as a plaintiff, or safeguarding your innocence as a defendant, you are undoubtedly about to face numerous depositions, hearings, and possibly a trial. To achieve the best results, you need a strong team you can trust assisting you along the way.

NAEGELI Deposition & Trial has been providing exemplary legal support to attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants for 45 years. We provide court reporting, legal transcription, videography, interpreting, and trial presentation services nationwide, delivered by highly trained and dedicated professionals.

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By Marsha Naegeli