Criminal Lawyers SydneyWhat Does Beyond Reasonable Doubt Mean?

October 5, 20220

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

what does beyond reasonable doubt meanEveryone has heard this phrase, and you probably think you know what does beyond reasonable doubt mean, but at law, the phrase is actually somewhat more complicated than you might think.

Beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of proof required for the Prosecution to prove its case against a Defendant.

An accused person never has to give evidence in Court, unless he or she chooses to do so. (And an accused person should never do this if he or she is unrepresented, or at the very least has obtained legal advice on this issue). Although you may feel that you want to tell “your side of the story”, that is often not in your best interest.

In a criminal case, the Prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. If it fails to do this, then the accused is acquitted. The Defence does not need to prove anything at all. If the Prosecution has insufficient evidence to prove each element of the offence with which the accused is charged, then the Prosecution fails.

Presumption of Innocence

presumption of innocenceThe presumption of innocence is one of several guarantees to which every accused person is entitled. Under international law, it is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it has been part of the common law of England (which Australia also follows), and prior to that, almost since time immemorial.

William Blackstone, an early commentator, writing on English laws  stated the philosophy that underpins both the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof being beyond reasonable doubt: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

For the presumption of innocence to be displaced, and the standard of  proof satisfied, there must be no other logical explanation (“reasonable alternative hypothesis”) to be derived from the facts alleged by the Prosecution, which could be consistent with the accused’s innocence. If there is a reasonable doubt in the court’s (or jury’s) mind that the accused committed the offence, a verdict of not guilty must be given.

This standard of proof is codified in Section 141, Evidence Act 1995, which states (in brief summary, and paraphrased) that the Prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and that the Defence case proven on the balance of probabilities is sufficient to find the accused not guilty. (This is a lower standard of proof which applies to most defences).

it is not always clear what is meant by reasonable doubt. It is clear, however, that it is A reasonable doubt, not ANY reasonable doubt. Not every doubt is considered reasonable.

What Does Beyond Reasonable Doubt Mean to You?

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research conducted a study in 2008 on what people understood by the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt”.  1200 people who had been jurors in criminal trials across the state were surveyed. The results were surprising.

55.4% of the jurors believed that the phrase meant that they needed to be “sure” that the person was guilty

22.9% believed it meant “almost sure”;

11.6% believed it meant “very likely”; and

10.1% believed it meant “pretty likely”.

Despite this wide range of interpretations, Courts are not permitted to clarify to any great degree what beyond reasonable doubt means.

In the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal case of R v GWB [2000] NSWCCA 410 Justice Newman reiterated that “Judges should not depart from the time honoured formula that the words ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ are words in the ordinary English usage and mean exactly what they say”.

The issue has recently been looked at by the High Court in the case of Pell. The High Court made the finding that “Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury, there is a significant possibility in relation to charges … that an innocent person has been convicted.”  Hence it was found on that basis that Cardinal George Pell was not guilty.

To Wrap Up

In summary, Courts are reluctant to clarify what precisely is meant by beyond reasonable doubt, outside of the plain meaning of the words themselves, as they are interpreted by reasonable jurors. This stance taken by superior courts throughout Australia of not explaining the content of the phrase is rooted in an attempt to maintain the integrity of jury decision-making, without over-complicating an already complex process.

If you have been charged with any type of criminal offence and would like legal representation, or to find out more about what does beyond reasonable doubt mean, and how it could affect your case, call Criminal Lawyers Sydney and Suburbs on (02) 9533 2269

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Criminal Lawyers Sydney and Suburbs

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