When a defendant goes into court, the standard of proof for their case is likely to depend on which type of court they're in. Criminal and civil proceedings are governed by different standards, and it's important to understand the implications. Let's look at why there are differing standards of proof and what they are.
Reasons for the Difference
Criminal cases have a higher standard of proof than any others in the American court system. The risk that the defendant could be deprived of their freedom or even their life means juries and judges have to be more careful. Otherwise, there is a risk that someone innocent could pay dearly for an offense.
On the flip side, most civil cases lead to compensation that's meant to even things out. In the strictest sense, the courts don't see this as the defendant losing anything. For example, a personal injury claim is about what the plaintiff has lost. The compensation paid to the plaintiff is meant to get things back to as close to even as can happen after an injury. Consequently, a lower standard of proof applies.
The Criminal Standard of Proof
When a criminal lawyer examines a case, they're trying to figure out whether the prosecution can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Notably, this doesn't mean there would be no doubts if someone is convicted. Instead, it means that a reasonable person wouldn't doubt the defendant's guilt in light of the available evidence.
You should also note that the standard doesn't immediately go to "beyond a reasonable doubt." During the arraignment process, the prosecution merely has to show there's good reason to believe a crime may have been committed and that the defendant was the perpetrator. The higher standard that a criminal defense lawyer wants to hold the prosecution to doesn't kick in until you get to trial.
The Civil Standard
In civil court, the standard is "the preponderance of the evidence." Attorneys often call this the 51% standard because the goal is to show that your side's argument is more likely than not the truth.
This can run up against some interesting issues, though. For example, personal injury law allows defendants to use force majeure as a defense. This means that if a greater force, such as a freak rainstorm, occurred, they might point to the storm as the cause of the injuries. However, the plaintiff just has to show that the defendant's actions and not the storm were most likely the cause.