THE JOB OF THE COURT IN CIVIL CASES: A USEFUL PRIMER: ADJUDICATION, THE BURDEN OF PROOF: THE JUDGE DOES NOT DECIDE WHO HAS THE MORAL HIGH GROUND
In Ball & Ors v Ball & Ors  EWHC 1750 (Ch) HHJ Paul Matthews (sitting as a Judge of the High Court) set out clearly and succinctly the principles by which the civil courts determine cases. They serve as a useful “cut out and keep” summary of the relevant principles.
The judge was deciding a dispute between family members about the validity of a will. Some of the parties were litigants in person.
THE JUDGMENT: A COURT DOES NOT DECIDE WHO HAS THE MORAL HIGH GROUND
The present legal procedure raises a number of legal issues. Lawyers will know this, but, for the benefit of the parties involved, I wish to emphasise that the court’s role is solely to adjudicate on the legal rights of the parties, that is, according to the rules of law. It is not to settle scores between warring members of the same family, or to decide who (if anyone) has the moral high ground. Indeed, anyone who thought that will be disappointed. I say nothing about such things in this judgment, because it is none of my business.
HOW THE CIVIL COURTS DECIDE
How civil courts decide
Lawyers will know this, but it may help the parties (none of whom is a lawyer) to understand this judgment if I explain a few points about the way in which judges decide civil cases. Where there is an issue in dispute between the parties in a civil case, such as this is, the law places the burden of proving the necessary facts upon one party or the other. As a general rule in English law, the person who asserts something has to prove it: Robins v National Trust Co Ltd  AC 515, 520. On the issues whether the testatrix was acting under pressure from her husband amounting to undue influence, or whether the will fails to make reasonable provision for the claimants, these matters are alleged by the claimants. So they bear the burden of proving them. The defendants do not have to prove a negative. As to the question of testamentary capacity of the testatrix, this is more complex. Ultimately the proponents of the will (the defendants) bear the burden of proving that she had capacity, but only once the issue of incapacity is properly raised. Here the claimants say that the testatrix was mistaken at the time she made her will, and thus had no capacity. So, on that basis, it would be for the defendants to show that she had capacity.
The significance of who bears the burden of proof in civil litigation is this. If the persons who bear the burden of proof of a particular matter (here the claimants) satisfy the court, after considering the material that has been placed before the court, that on the balance of probabilities that something happened, then, for the purposes of deciding the case, it did happen. But if those persons do not so satisfy the court, then (for these purposes) it did not happen. Our system of fact-finding is binary. It is either one thing or the other. There is no room for maybe. As I have said, the standard of proof in a civil case is the balance of probabilities, that is, that a thing is more likely to have happened than not. In mathematical terms, more than 50%. It is not scientific certainty at 100%. Nor is it even the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”, even though sometimes (as in this case) there are some criminal elements in what happened.
There are another point that I should make about the way the English civil courts reach their decisions. This is that it is for the parties to find and put before the court the material which they think will best help the court and prove their case. The English courts do not investigate of their own motion. It may often be that other relevant material exists elsewhere. But the court does not go and look for it. In civil litigation, the court usually makes its decision only on the basis of the material put before it by the parties.
Taken altogether, what all this means is that the decision of the court is not necessarily the objective truth of the matters in issue. Instead, it is what is most likely to have happened, based on the material which the parties have chosen to place before the court. My decision in this case must be seen in that light.