To properly understand the law of evidence it is pivotal to know the meaning and differences between burden of proof and standard of proof. In this article, I will take you through everything you need to know about those terms. I will also take my time to highlight their differences when used in the court.
The terms “Standard of proof” and “burden of proof“, are usually confused for each other as they are very similar and are necessary for proving issues or fact in dispute in the law court. Take for example, it could be said that in criminal trials, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, that is, he who is asserting or making a claim that the accused committed an offence.
The standard of proof, however, in criminal trials is beyond reasonable doubt. That is, the prosecution should be able to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offence, for it is better and safer to acquit ninety-nine criminals than for an innocent person to go to jail, or be punished for a crime he didn’t commit.
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Meaning of burden of proof
Burden of proof is the party’s duty to present evidence in order to prove his assertions or allegations made against the other party, in a law court. It is the party’s responsibility to prove a charge in a law suit.
The burden to prove a charge might arise either in a civil case or a criminal trial, and it normally rest on the person who is asserting a claim.
Basically, there are two major tools used in determining whose burden it is to prove certain facts in the law court. They are; inference and presumption.
Inference is the conclusion that a judge(s), or jury may make pursuant to the available circumstances. However, a presumption is a conclusion that the judge must arrive at or infer, under a given circumstance.
A presumption could be of facts or of law. Where the law reads that “the court ‘shall’ presume…”, it shall be read as a presumption of law. It is trite in law that presumption of law can be rebuttable or irrebutable. Rebuttable presumptions are conclusions the court may infer given the circumstances, until proven otherwise. Take for example, the presumption of innocence on the accused person in a criminal trial, which remains in favour of the accused until it is proven otherwise beyond reasonable doubt.
Also the presumption of marriage contained in section 166 of the Evidence Act of Nigeria, where it was stated that cohabitation of the couple is enough presumption that they are married. This of course, is also subject to further proof by the opposing party whose burden it is to prove otherwise.
Irrebutable presumption in Nigeria, is contained in section 30 of the Criminal code, Nigeria. Under this section, a child under seven, is incapable of committing a crime in Nigeria, as they are deemed to be incapable of forming criminal intent, which is a major element in establishing the guilt of an accused under the criminal law. Also, a child under 12 is incapable of committing rape. This presumption is irrebutable and the court will not allow evidence pointing to the contrary.
In the case of Mbang v State (2009) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1172) 140, where the accused persons were accused of eating human flesh, it was held that evidence led could be direct or circumstantial evidence. Where the evidence is direct, it means it is such that the person asserting the claim/fact witnessed the accused doing the particular act.
Take for example, where it is alleged that Mr. A killed Mr. B, statement made by Mr C, a palm wine tapper, that he witnessed the murder, while he was in the process of tapping his palm wine from the palm tree is admissible as direct evidence against the accused. This witness would be cross examined to check the veracity of his statement, and when he gives contradicting statements his evidence would be struck out and considered unreliable.
Circumstantial evidence on the other hand, is evidence led, which indirectly proves a fact. It is usually evidence found at the crime scene. Examples are DNA of the accused in a case of rape allegation by collecting the semen sample of the accused from the victim’s vagina, also in a case of murder allegation, knife stained with blood at the crime scene, is considered circumstantial evidence.
However, courts are slow to give judgment based only on circumstantial evidence, as it is the evidence that is easily fabricated. Thus the court only gives judgment based on circumstantial evidence where the evidence irresistibly leads to the guilt of the accused.
Meaning of Standard of Proof
Standard of proof is the degree or level of proof demanded by a law courts necessary or the standard, to proving a specific allegation. In civil cases, the burden placed on the plaintiff is on the preponderance of evidence, while in criminal trial the standard is usually beyond reasonable doubt. Preponderance of evidence is compared to beyond reasonable doubt, lighter.
The important element is if more likely than not, the defendant committed the acts which he is being accused of by the plaintiff unlike in criminal cases where the judge has to make a judgment, after critically examining the evidence led by both parties that the accused is one capable of committing the offence, and he actually did commit the offence, When there are any doubts as to the authenticity of the judgment, it would be knocked out and the accused acquitted.
The prosecution’s evidence should overcome the presumption of innocence in favour of the accused, for the court to rule in his favour.
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Differences Between Burden of Proof and Standard of Proof
Burden of proof is the party’s duty to prove the allegations or claim he is making in the law court, while standard of proof is the degree of proof demanded to prove a specific allegation.
In civil cases, the standard of proof can either be on a balance of probability or preponderance of evidence. This standard doesn’t change, unless there is an element of crime in the civil suit. However, in civil cases the burden of proof remains on the plaintiff who is laying allegations against the defendant. However this burden shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant in certain cases.
In criminal cases, the standard of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, nothing more or less. The prosecution should be able to prove that the accused committed the offence. This standard does not change and remains with the prosecution for as long as it is a criminal case, except where the accused raises a defence in response to the charge laid, that the standard rests on a balance of probability. However in criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. The accused can even afford to not say a word throughout the course of the case, and rest his case on the strength of the prosecution’s case. This burden does not shift.
Evidential burden of proof, shifts from one party to the other in a proceeding. The scale of justice has to tilt either on the plaintiff or the defendant. Where the scales tilt to the plaintiff’s favour, it is presumed that he has satisfied the burden of proof on the matter. Where the scale tilts otherwise, it means the plaintiff has failed to satisfy this burden.
In conclusion, burden of proof and standard of proof are very well related, and there are really no clear bound difference between them as they are both necessary for the pursuit of justice in the law court.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka, ACMC, is a lawyer and a certified mediator/conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a developer with knowledge in various programming languages. Samuel is determined to leverage his skills in technology, SEO, and legal practice to revolutionize the legal profession worldwide by creating web and mobile applications that simplify legal research. Sam is also passionate about educating and providing valuable information to people.