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Preponderance vs. Reasonable Doubt: Legal Standards Explained

“Preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” are two legal standards used in different types of legal proceedings. Preponderance of the evidence is a standard of proof commonly used in civil cases, whereas beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof used in criminal cases.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

What is “Preponderance of Evidence”?

According to Dictionary Law, in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit, the preponderance of the evidence refers to the greater weight of evidence required for the trier of fact, whether it be a jury or a judge without a jury, to make a decision in favor of one party over the other [1].

Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial. No matter what the definition stated in various legal opinions, the meaning is somewhat subjective – Dictionary Law

This standard is based on the evidence that is more convincing and likely to be true or accurate, rather than the sheer quantity of evidence presented. Therefore, the testimony of one highly credible witness may carry more weight and provide a preponderance of evidence compared to a dozen witnesses with vague or inconsistent testimony.

Similarly, a signed agreement with clear and specific terms may hold more weight than mere opinions or speculation regarding the intentions of the parties involved. Ultimately, the preponderance of evidence standard aims to ensure that the decision is based on the most compelling and credible evidence presented during the proceedings.

What is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?”

In the realm of criminal law, “beyond a reasonable doubt” stands as the legal threshold required to secure a conviction. In a criminal case, it falls upon the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. This entails persuading the jury that no other plausible explanation can be derived from the evidence presented during the trial. Essentially, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt in order to deliver a guilty verdict.

In other words, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt in order to render a guilty verdict. This standard of proof is much higher than the civil standard, called “preponderance of the evidence,” which only requires a certainty greater than 50 percent.

What is the “Burden of Proof”?

According to Investopedia, the burden of proof serves as a pivotal legal standard that determines the validity or invalidity of a legal claim based on the evidence presented [2]. Typically, one party in a claim bears the burden of proof, and often it is the party initiating the claim that must demonstrate its validity and carry this burden.

The burden of proof requirement is designed to ensure that legal decisions are made based on facts rather than conjecture. The party initiating a case or lawsuit must support its claims with facts and evidence. Attorneys are often tasked with collecting evidence and establishing a burden of proof on behalf of a plaintiff – Investopedia

Why is the Burden of Proof Higher in Criminal Cases?

The burden of proof represents the responsibility of a party to provide evidence that persuades the fact-finder regarding the truth of a proposition under consideration in a case.

In criminal cases, the burden of proof is higher as the stakes are higher – a person’s freedom, reputation, and sometimes even their life are at risk.

In a criminal case, the prosecution must establish their case beyond a reasonable doubt, a stringent standard compared to civil cases. This requirement dictates that there be no plausible alternative explanation for the evidence presented aside from the defendant’s guilt. Moreover, the repercussions of a criminal conviction are more severe than those in civil matters.

Furthermore, the presumption of innocence assumes paramount importance in criminal proceedings. It places the onus on the prosecution to demonstrate guilt, rather than requiring the defendant to prove innocence. The heightened burden of proof in criminal cases serves to safeguard individuals from wrongful convictions and ensures the equitable administration of justice.

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