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How Can I Prove my Case?

Once you have decided that you want and are able to take a PIL case forward, it is important to be able prove your case.

Only when you prove your case can you get a judgement in your favour and secure a remedy.


Who Has to Prove their Case?

a) Civil Cases

If you bring a civil claim, you will need to provide evidence to support your claim. In other words, you have the “burden of proof” to prove your claim.

To succeed, you will need to;

  • Produce evidence before the court about to show the defendant committed the acts you have complained of, and the consequences of those actions.
  • Show the defendant is responsible for the harm you suffered as a result of those actions.


b) Criminal Cases

Usually, the public prosecutor (the state official seeking to convict the defendant) relies on investigative authorities like the police to collect evidence.

The victim also has a role in providing evidence;

  • If you are a victim of or witness to a criminal offence, you may have to make statements, testimonies, or reports to the police, prosecution service, or other authorities.

If you are bringing a private prosecution (see “Who Can Take Legal Action?”), you will be responsible for providing the court with the necessary evidence of the guilt of the accused.

  • This is can be challenging. Gathering evidence yourself is difficult, because you may not have access to information held by the police and other public entities.

What do You Have to Prove?

a) Civil Cases

What you will need to prove will depend upon the type of civil claim that you bring.

Consider this common example.

If someone breaches a contractual promise they made to you. You must show;

i) The existence of the contractual promise by the defendant

  • E.g. The defendant promised not to build on a piece of land.

ii) The breach of that promise by the defendant

  • E.g. The defendant does build on the land.

iii) The way in which the defendant’s breach caused you loss

  • E.g. This means you cannot use the land for your cattle to graze.

iv) Proof of the precise losses that you have suffered as a result

  • E.g. Several of your animals died as a result.

For further information on what you will have to prove if you bring a case, see the “Legal Area” relevant to your circumstances.


b) Criminal Cases

The prosecuting authorities have to prove that;

  • All the elements of the criminal offence occurred
  • The defendant committed the offence

These elements and the tests of causation (what is needed to show the defendant was responsible) depend on the particular criminal offence as defined in the criminal code.

For example, if the law defines theft as “the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission, with the intent to deprive the owner of it”, a prosecutor would need to prove the following elements:

  • That the property in question existed at the time of the alleged offence
  • That the property was owned by someone other than the defendant, and that the defendant knew this
  • That the property was taken by the defendant
  • That the owner did not consent to the taking of the property in this way, and
  • That the property was taken with intent to deprive the owner of it (and not, for example, by accident)

Because of the serious consequences a criminal prosecution brings, in most countries, there is a high standard of proof that has to be met.

  • E.g. In the UK and the USA, the crime must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” for the defendant can be convicted.

Practical Tip
If you plan to file a criminal complaint, you can increase the chance that the case will be taken by the prosecutor by researching which elements the prosecutor will need to prove, and providing as much evidence for each element as possible.


How Can I Gather Evidence?

Collecting evidence takes time and may involve contacting and meeting people (victims, witnesses, experts etc.), or going to the place where the wrong was committed.

  • E.g. if there is environmental damage, you will need the relevant equipment to be able to gather and save evidence.

When collecting evidence to support your case, you have to respect the law and the rights of others (e.g. the right to privacy).

  • Collecting evidence does not justify the use of fraudulent means. Evidence obtained unlawfully often cannot be used in court.


a) How Can I Gather Information about the Person/Organisation I Want to Sue?

Before starting your research, it is important to decide which part of a company you want to sue (see “Who Can I Sue?”).


i) Finding Information About a Company/Organisation?

There are some challenges when gathering evidence against companies and organisations.

Check You Have the Right Name

Names of people, companies and organisations are sometimes difficult to find. Careful research is needed to ensure you have identified the correct target.

In most countries, companies should not have a name that is identical or similar to the name of another company. But scam companies may use names that are almost identical to names of well-known companies with a good reputation. Check if this has happened in your case.

Who owns the company? Is the company worth suing?

Rules on business secrets can make it difficult to find out details on companies’ activities and owners.

It also may often be difficult to obtain reliable information about the real economic worth of the company.

Sources of these types of information include;

Company and business registers

Business registers may be produced by public or private bodies.

Using the register, members of the public can generally find out;

  • Whether a company exists as a legal person
  • Who is authorised to represent the company and sign contracts.
  • Some information about the financial state of the company.

The content of company registers is usually regulated by law, and the information provided varies from country to country.

Sometimes fees are charged to access a register.

Practical Tip
If the fees are very high, you could ask (pro bono) corporate lawyers to help you; they often have annual subscriptions to company registers since they use them everyday.

Further information on company registers:

State-owned companies

The main legal documents for state-owned companies may not be available in company registers, but be held by the public bodies which set up the company.

In some countries, the organisational structure and operational rules of a state-owned company may be defined and detailed by national legislation.

Other “legal persons”: associations, foundations, trusts

These won’t be listed on national registers of companies, but details about such organisations may be recorded in other registers.

Some organisations are not “legal persons” and may not be registered anywhere. These are known as “unincorporated associations”.

Practical Tip
For “unincorporated associations”, you need to identify the natural persons associated with them. These individuals can be held responsible for the actions of the organisations.

Finding out who runs informal organisations can be difficult;

  • Try using a search engine or looking at the organisation’s website.
  • Try to identify affiliated organisations
  • Check the public filings that the entity has made (see the next paragraph of this section).

Company reports and filings

Companies often have to make reports and make information publicly available.

For example:

  • Companies which receive funding from the public (via the issue of securities) are generally required to make public detailed information about the company and its financial position.
  • Companies operating in regulated sectors (e.g. financial services, energy, utilities) are often required to make regulatory information public.
  • Companies are sometimes the object of investigations by public bodies, and are required to publicly disclose information in the course of those processes.


ii) Finding Information Out About an Individual

If you want to take legal action against an individual (sometimes called a “natural person”), the first question is in what capacity is he/she relevant to your case?

When you have answered that question, the following sources may provide information on the individuals in question.

Association with an organisation

If you are looking for an individual who may be the owner, representative, or office holder of a company, or other organisation, checking company registers (see section 1).

Office-holder in a public body

When senior public office holders are appointed, information on their positions are usually published.

  • This often appears in official journals of the country.

Freedom of information laws also cover public bodies (see “Access to Information”);

  • You can make information requests under these laws to obtain information about public office holders when the information relates to their public office.
  • Usually, the information that can be obtained includes the office holder’s name, the scope of his/her authority, and the date of assuming office.

Persons registers

Government bodies often hold databases which can help you research information on individuals.

For example;

  • In some countries, authorities that issue passports, identity cards, or vehicle registration, may be authorised by law to provide you with information on a particular person.
  • Public registers are kept in many countries of individuals who have been involved in a previous court case or who have been bankrupt.

You will first need to prove that you have a legal interest in obtaining information about that person.

  • Proof of a legal interest could include evidence that the individual caused damage to you and that you wish to claim compensation.

When researching individuals, their right to privacy may limit what information you can access and use.

b) How do I Get Information on Activities of Possible Defendants?

For a successful legal action, you need to know not only who has done something harmful, but what has been done, and why and how it happened.

Useful sources for researching the activities of defendants include;


i) Public information

You can find much useful information readily accessible in publicly available sources.

Even if you find publicly-available information, there is nothing to prevent you from making further information requests to obtain additional relevant information that is not yet public (see “Access to Information”).


ii) Licences and permits

In most countries, private companies and individuals can only operate certain industrial or trade activities if they obtain licences.

The riskier a business is, the more licences are required and the more complex those licenses may be.

  • E.g. licenses from public bodies are required by any business that includes risks related to the environment, public health, public safety, financial stability etc.

The details of these licences are normally held by the public office charged with oversight.

Sometimes, public offices have to publish license information;

  • This information can be found on public websites, or annual reports of the public office.
  • However, such information is not always published or accessible to the public. The level of access depends on the country and public office concerned.

When public bodies are reluctant to share the information you need, you will need to turn to other sources, such as;

  • Information from non-governmental organisations or international organisations.


iii) Public funds and public contracts

Public funds and public contracts may be an important source of information for preparing your legal action.

  • This includes Information on the financial transactions of public bodies, and individuals or companies involved in public contracts.

Try accessing this information through information requests to public bodies and through checking information in published sources.

Here are some examples of useful information sources you could try:

  • Budgets of public bodies
  • Awards of concessions and contracts (common in communications, transport and extractive industries)
  • Public procurement (process when public bodies purchase goods/services)
  • Subsidies and loans by state-owned financial institutions
  • Privatisations or public auctions
  • Development projects
  • Organisations that monitor aid or development activity (e.g. Bankwatch; an organisation dedicated to monitoring use of international financial institutions operating in Central and Eastern Europe. Publish-what-you-fund; a not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for transparency in aid funding)
  • Disaster recovery funds
  • Tax records
  • Revenue and incomes data (e.g. the Extractive Industries Transparencies Initiative collects information on incomes in the extractive industry in some countries)


iv) Other Legal Cases

Other legal cases can be very important sources of information for your own legal action, where one of the defendants is involved.

In any court case, evidence is provided and analysed before the court;

  • The evidence produced in other cases can provide details about the nature of a company/person, its activities, and the broader issue.

In different countries and cases, rules vary on who can have access to courtrooms and case files;

  • Some cases take place during closed hearings.
  • Restrictions (based on the right to privacy or business secrets) may apply to information disclosed in courtrooms or in case files.

Although, the right to a fair trial generally means court hearings and case files are public. Therefore, most information about court cases can be accessed by the public.

c) General Investigative Research Tools

Check out and use the following toolkits designed for investigative journalists:


What Kind of Evidence do I Need?

There are different kinds of evidence. The main ones are:

a) Documentary evidence

Documentary evidence is generally viewed as the best form of evidence.

When compiling the evidence for your claim, prioritise the collection of documentary evidence.

Practical Tip
Try and get the originals of the documents that you need. If you can’t get the originals, gather evidence showing that the copy is an authentic copy of the original.
Keep paper and electronic copies of all evidence.

i) Official documents: Official documents are important.

These include;

  • Contracts,
  • Letters from the administration
  • Environmental assessments
  • Certificates

ii) Correspondence

Emails or letters you have with different actors (victims, the defendant, administration, organisations etc) counts as evidence.

iii) Notes of relevant meetings

Write down notes on all the meetings you have with the parties involved in the case, and make them sign the notes.

  • For example, if you have a meeting with a company, write a report of all the commitments made in the meeting, and have the parties sign it, so that you can later ask them to comply with those commitments.

iv) Medical certificates

If you have suffered physical harm, a medical certificate, made by a doctor or other medical professionals, stating that you have suffered an injury can be useful.

  • The certificate should describe the injury and its probable cause.

v) Reports

Research by independent experts can also be very useful.

  • The report can either be an existing report written for another purpose, or you can ask someone independent to write a new report (this can be expensive).

vi) Photographs and videos

It is important that the date of all photos or videos evidence is clear and available.

  • One way to do this is for the date to be indicated on the picture. The date may be registered electronically, or you can place a daily newspaper within the image to show the date the picture was taken.

It is also important that the picture or video can identify the place where it was taken;

  • It should be taken with something unique from this place, which can show that the pollution, for example, which appears in the picture, is in the place stated.
  • You could, for example, take the picture of a truck with the company’s name on it, or an identifiable building of a town next to what you want to show on the picture or the video.
  • You could also hold a GPS device in the picture, showing the coordinates.

vii) Evidence from the internet

You can use websites and other information found on the internet, by saving the address on a document, copying the article, printing it or even by taking a screen print.

  • Make sure to make a note of when the print was made.

viii) Witness evidence/testimonies

Declarations made by the victims or witnesses, asserting the existence of some facts are very important.

  • They might be written or spoken.

While collecting the testimonies, you have to register the identity of the person who is testifying, by taking her name and identity information and having her sign the testimony.

  • If the person who testifies wants her identity to be kept secret, you still need to have her identity information, but you can ask the judge not to reveal this information to the accused/defendant.


Declarations or statements made by witnesses are very important evidence in legal cases. Preparing them well takes a lot of time and is best done by  lawyers. Here is a  guide to doing this.


The Financial Cost

Collecting evidence costs money. You will need to take this into account when deciding if you are going to undertake litigation.

The costly parts of gathering evidence include:

  • Travelling to the place where the evidence needs to be collected (e.g., to take photos or interview people)
  • Collecting physical evidence, storing it, and bringing it to court
  • Paying the transport costs for witnesses to come and give evidence in court.
  • Obtaining reports by independent experts
  • Collecting samples and analysing them (e.g. where the claim concerns environmental pollution).

For further information, see “How Can I Finance my Action?

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