Posted: 28 / 03 / 2016

In confiscation law ‘the balance of probabilities’ plays a key role.  Under s6(7) Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 the court must decide any question relevant to the determination of the amount which the defendant is to be ordered to pay on the balance of probabilities.

But what does that mean?


The balance of probabilities

Some years ago the House of Lords (as the UK Supreme Court was known at the time) considered the meaning of the phrase ‘the balance of probabilities’ in the case of Re H & Others (minors) [1995] UKHL 16.  The case actually concerned an application by a local authority for a care order under the Children Act 1989 in respect of certain children who may or may not have become subject to significant harm if they remained in the care of their mother and step-father.

Nevertheless I suggest that the House of Lords’ comments in that case on the meaning of the expression ‘the balance of probabilities’ are of wider application.  Indeed when s6(7) of the then Proceeds of Crime Bill was being considered by a committee of MPs they were referred by the government minister to this judgment.

The House of Lords’ judgment includes the following:-

“The balance of probability standard means that a court is satisfied an event occurred if the court considers that, on the evidence, the occurrence of the event was more likely than not. When assessing the probabilities the court will have in mind as a factor, to whatever extent is appropriate in the particular case, that the more serious the allegation the less likely it is that the event occurred and, hence, the stronger should be the evidence before the court concludes that the allegation is established on the balance of probability. Fraud is usually less likely than negligence. Deliberate physical injury is usually less likely than accidental physical injury.  . . .  Built into the preponderance of probability standard is a generous degree of flexibility in respect of the seriousness of the allegation.”

“Although the result is much the same, this does not mean that where a serious allegation is in issue the standard of proof required is higher. It means only that the inherent probability or improbability of an event is itself a matter to be taken into account when weighing the probabilities and deciding whether, on balance, the event occurred. The more improbable the event, the stronger must be the evidence that it did occur before, on the balance of probability, its occurrence will be established.”

In the later case of Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35, the House of Lords commented on this passage, stressing the importance of the words “to whatever extent is appropriate in the particular case“.  The judgment went on:-

“There is only one rule of law, namely that the occurrence of the fact in issue must be proved to have been more probable than not. Common sense, not law, requires that in deciding this question, regard should be had, to whatever extent appropriate, to inherent probabilities.”

In another House of Lords case in 2008, Re CD (Northern Ireland) [2008] UKHL 33 Lord Carswell said, at para [28]:-

“A possible source of confusion is the failure to bear in mind with sufficient clarity the fact that in some contexts a court or tribunal has to look at the facts more critically or more anxiously than in others before it can be satisfied to the requisite standard.  The standard itself is, however, finite and unvarying.  Situations which make such heightened examination necessary may be the inherent unlikelihood of the occurrence taking place (Lord Hoffmann’s example of the animal seen in Regent’s Park [which may have been a lioness or an Alsatian]), the seriousness of the allegation to be proved or, in some cases, the consequences which could follow from acceptance of proof of the relevant fact.  The seriousness of the allegation requires no elaboration: a tribunal of fact will look closely into the facts grounding an allegation of fraud before accepting that it has been established.  The seriousness of consequences is another facet of the same proposition: if it is alleged that a bank manager has committed a minor peculation, that could entail very serious consequences for his career, so making it the less likely that he would risk doing such a thing.  These are all matters of ordinary experience, requiring the application of good sense on the part of those who have to decide such issues.  They do not require a different standard of proof or a specially cogent standard of evidence, merely appropriately careful consideration by the tribunal before it is satisfied of the matter which has to be established.”

In a further case, Re S-B Children [2009] UKSC 17, Lady Hale in the Supreme Court said:-

“There is no necessary connection between the seriousness of an allegation and the improbability that it has taken place. The test is the balance of probabilities, nothing more and nothing less.”

So it is the inherent improbability of an event, not its seriousness, which as a matter of common sense will be in the mind of the court when deciding an issue on the balance of probabilities.


Confiscation proceedings

In confiscation proceedings the court will be dealing with a defendant who has been convicted of an offence.  The existence of that conviction, and the evidence already accepted by the court in relation to it, cannot be ignored by the court when drawing conclusions relevant to the confiscation order.

However I suggest the court should not lose sight of the significance of ‘the balance of probabilities’ when determining matters which are in dispute in the consequent confiscation proceedings.


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(Note: This article applies to confiscation proceedings under the provisions of Part 2 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in England and Wales.  There are a number of additional issues which could be relevant to a defendant’s confiscation proceedings in particular cases which it is not possible to deal with in a relatively short article such as this.  Appropriate professional advice should be sought in each individual case.)