In Chapter 1 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss the differences between criminal and civil law. A discussion point which often arises in my lectures with students is the difference in the standard of proof in criminal and civil trials.
In a criminal trial, the onus or burden of proof is very much the prosecutor’s responsibility. In other words, the prosecutor must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.
By complete contrast, in civil litigation, the onus or burden of proof is placed on the shoulders of the pursuer (or the claimant). S/he must show, on the balance of probabilities, that the basis of the claim is stronger or more credible than that of the defender (or respondent).
The criminal standard of proof is of a much higher standard than the civil burden of proof. I think this can be easily justified given the consequences of someone being convicted of a crime: the sanctions are much more serious and potentially longer lasting.
So far so good: most First Year Law students can grasp the distinction between the different standards of proof or evidence.
Difficulties tend to arise when students encounter a situation where the conduct of the behaviour at the centre of a case can have both criminal and civil consequences.
They often ask me why someone (the accused) can be acquitted of a crime, but sued successfully in a subsequent civil action?
I often use driving offences as a means of making a point. Many drivers who are charged with dangerous driving often experience immediate relief when they are acquitted of criminal charges; this sense of relief can be short lived when they are informed that the victim intends to proceed with a personal injury action (which has a very realistic chance of success).
The simple reason for the above situation is the difference in the burden of proof in each trial: the higher burden of proof in a criminal trial and a lower burden of proof in the civil claim.
It’s also important to appreciate that the criminal and civil legal systems operate independently of one another. They have different functions:
Primarily, criminal law seeks to punish offenders who behave in dangerous and irresponsible ways which would threaten the safety and security of the wider community and public.
On the other hand, civil law (concerning the breakdown of relations between private individuals) essentially seeks to provide the victim of a breach of duty with a remedy – usually, but not always, compensation or damages.
In Chapter 1 of Introductory Scots Law, I discussed the example of a successful civil claim for damages by a rape victim (DC v (First) DG and (Second) DR  CSOH 5). Crucially, the criminal case against her alleged attackers had been unsuccessful and both men were acquitted. That was not the end of the matter: the victim pursued both men at the Court of Session and won substantial damages in respect of her injuries.
A link to the judgement can be found below:
Recently, there have been a number of similar cases where the failure of criminal cases to secure convictions for rape have been no barrier to victims of sexual assault from pursuing civil damages claims in the Scottish courts.
Links to two of these stories reported by the BBC can be found below:
There different standards of proof depending on whether the legal action is a criminal prosecution or civil claim.
There is a higher standard of proof required in a criminal prosecution to secure a conviction.
The two legal systems have different objectives and operate independently of one another.
As we have seen in a number of cases, an accused who is acquitted in a criminal trial may experience a very unpleasant shock when the victim communicates an intention to pursue a civil claim for damages – which, in the longer term, may have every chance of success.
It should be emphasised, of course, that those successfully sued for conduct such as rape or sexual assault, but successfully acquitted of all criminal charges, will not have a criminal record. They will bear civil responsibility for the victim’s injuries. It’s by no means a perfect solution (given the lower conviction rates for rape), but does provide victims with some means of legal redress.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, February 2019