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The ‘burden of proof’

02nd February 2016

It has always been a fundamental principle of English law that for an individual to be convicted of a criminal offence, the offence against them must be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This is called the ‘burden of proof’. Put simply, if there is a ‘reasonable doubt’ that the defendant did what they were charged with, then the defendant must be given the benefit of that doubt and acquitted.

The ‘burden of proof’ is very different in relation to civil claims. These are the claims for compensation that a person might make after being involved in a car accident or in a boundary dispute for instance.  In civil cases the claimant must prove their claim on the ‘balance of probabilities’. This means that the Court has to balance all of the evidence and reach a decision whether the case put by the claimant is more likely that not to be correct.

Clearly it is easier to prove a claim on the ‘the balance of probabilities’ than it is to convict someone ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.  We have recently dealt with two cases that show the contrasting approaches of the civil and criminal Courts.  In the first case a lady riding a bicycle in the dark, without lights, was knocked off her bicycle and run over by a vehicle exiting a car park.  In the second case, a man who was under the influence of alcohol, was walking along a dark country lane at the edge of the road and towards the traffic. There was no footpath available.  Both victims suffered serious internal injuries. The drivers of both motor vehicles confirmed that they had not seen the victims before the impact.

In both cases we interviewed the police officers involved and despite the very serious injuries, the decision was taken not to prosecute. This was because those prosecuting felt they could see no reason to blame the drivers.

George Ide successfully argued in both cases that the injured parties were there to be seen and the fact that the drivers had not seen the injured parties was evidence of their failing to drive at an appropriate speed within their visibility range and/or without due attention to the road.  Both cases were successful in the civil Courts notwithstanding the drivers avoiding criminal prosecution.

Garry Sleet. Personal injury department.

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