Burden of Proof in Criminal and Civil Cases in Singapore

Last updated on June 15, 2022

lawyer showing fighting case in court and parties looking at each other

What Does “Burden of Proof” Mean?

The “burden of proof”, in its simplest terms, just means the obligation of a party to prove its allegations at trial.

This article will explain the difference between how much needs to be proved to win a criminal case as compared to a civil case and who needs to prove it. It will cover:

Who Bears the Burden of Proof in Criminal vs Civil Cases?

Generally, it is the party that makes an allegation that has to prove it in order to prevail. This explains the well-known adage that one is innocent until proven guilty.

In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove its allegation that the accused has committed a crime. If it fails to discharge its burden of proof by failing to produce enough evidence of the accused’s guilt, even if the accused says nothing at all, theoretically, the prosecution should lose and the accused should be found “not guilty”.

The same principle essentially applies in a civil case where one party (i.e., the claimant) sues another (i.e., the defendant) for some wrong it has allegedly committed. To win, the claimant must produce enough evidence to prove that the defendant has actually done what the claimant alleges. The main difference between criminal and civil cases in this respect is the “standard of proof”, rather than the burden of proof.

What does “standard of proof” mean and how does it differ from burden of proof?

The standard of proof describes the amount of evidence necessary to prove an allegation in a trial. So if the burden of proof refers to who is doing the proving, the standard of proof refers to how thoroughly they must prove it to win.

The standard of proof in a criminal trial is higher than in a civil trial. In a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In a civil case, the claimant need only prove its case “on the balance of probabilities”.

Beyond a reasonable doubt essentially means that the evidence shows that there is no other possible reasonable explanation for what happened other than the accused’s guilt. On the balance of probabilities simply means that the evidence shows that it is more likely than not that a particular thing happened.

A high-profile example that shows the contrast between these two standards of proof is the famous OJ Simpson case where Simpson was acquitted of murder in a criminal prosecution because it was found that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the families of his deceased victims successfully sued him in a civil suit for wrongful death and secured an award of damages against him. This is because it was found that there was sufficient evidence, by reference to the lower civil standard of proof, to prove that Simpson was actually the killer.

Can the Burden of Proof Shift to Another Party?

Sometimes the burden of proof can shift from one party to another. In fact, in practice, it usually does.

In a civil case, once the claimant proves its claim, the burden then shifts to the defendant to prove any defence it has on the balance of probabilities. The same principle applies in criminal cases, but with the higher standard of proof that applies to the prosecution’s burden.

In a criminal case, once the prosecution presents a “prima facie” case against the accused, the burden of proof then shifts to the accused to prove his innocence on the balance of probabilities. This just means that once the prosecution has presented enough evidence to make each element of their charges against the accused plausible, it then becomes the accused’s responsibility to present evidence of an alternative innocent explanation of her involvement in the incident giving rise to the charges.

For example, if the prosecution charges the accused with assault and produces a witness that claims to have seen the accused punch the victim, a prima facie case against the accused has been made out. If the judge believes the witness, the accused will now probably be convicted unless he/she can produce enough evidence to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that he/she has some legal defence to the charge.

For instance, if the accused produced a witness who claimed to see the victim punch the accused first, was about to punch him/her again and that the accused had no opportunity to escape, he/she may be able to prove the defence of self-defence. However, this is only possible if the judge believes that it is more likely than not that the defence witness is telling the truth and accurately observed and recalled the entire encounter and that the prosecution witness is, more likely than not, lying, mistaken or did not fully see or accurately recall the entire encounter.

While the theory behind how the burden and standard of proof works is not too difficult, the reality of how it plays out in practice in criminal and civil trials, respectively, is quite complicated and is sometimes difficult to predict. Doing so typically requires considerable legal expertise and extensive trial experience. This is why it would be unwise to assume that, merely because you might understand the concepts of the burden and standard of proof, that you could accurately assess the likelihood of success of your case at trial.

It is crucial to engage an experienced criminal or civil litigator, as the case might be, to advise you and represent you in your trial. You can find a list of criminal litigators here and civil litigators here.

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