Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The criminal standard of proof is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. This is the highest standard of proof in our judicial system. This page outlines what the criminal standard of proof entails.

Different standards of proof

Our legal system has two different standards of proof. In criminal matters, issues must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil matters, issues must be proven only on the balance of probabilities. The criminal standard of proof is higher than the civil standard of proof because of the more serious consequences that can flow from a criminal finding.

The presumption of innocence

The presumption of innocence is one of several guarantees that are given to accused persons in relation to criminal proceedings. Other guarantees are the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to a fair trial.

In a criminal matter, the prosecution bears the burden of proving a charge. This must be done by adducing evidence that has been lawfully obtained.

The presumption of innocence and the burden of proof work alongside each other.

Under the presumption of innocence, a person cannot be found guilty unless the evidence is such that the accused’s guilty is the only logical explanation that can be derived from the evidence. There must be no reasonable doubt in the court’s mind that the defendant is guilty.

It is important to note that although the court must find a person guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, this does not mean that all doubt must be eliminated. This would make it incredibly difficult to meet the threshold. However, any doubt that remains must be unreasonable to satisfy the criminal standard of proof.

How is the standard of proof applied?

The prosecution must meet the standard of proof by convincing the court that based on the evidence, the accused’s guilt is the only reasonable explanation. The accused does not have to establish that he or she is not guilty.

A person will sometimes be able to secure an acquittal simply by raising reasonable doubt in the court’s mind. This may be achieved by highlighting inconsistencies in witness accounts or by persuading the court that there is some other possible explanation for the evidence that is consistent with the accused’s innocence.

Who decides if the standard of proof has been met?

The court (meaning the jury, judge or magistrate) will ultimately decide whether an accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Why have such a high standard of proof?

Our criminal justice system operates on the principle that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to convict someone who is innocent. It is this notion that underpins the standard of proof of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. The high standard of proof means there is a high risk that a guilty individual will walk free, but it also means there is a low risk that an innocent person will be wrongly convicted of a crime.

What if the court gets it wrong?

Whether a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is highly subjective as different people have different perception of what is ‘reasonable’.

In some cases, the prosecution may believe that an accused has been acquitted where there was no reasonable doubt that they were guilty.

Conversely, in some cases, the defence may believe an accused has been found guilty where there was reasonable doubt.

If the defence believes that the accused has been found guilty under circumstances where there was, in fact, a reasonable doubt, it can appeal against the guilty verdict. However, the prosecution cannot appeal against a not guilty verdict.

If you require legal advice or representation in a criminal matter or in any other legal matter, please contact Taylor Rose.

This article was written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom holds a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts, a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, and a Master’s in Writing and Literature. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and in family law in Queensland.