Criminal Law News & Current Affairs

By Peter Woodhouse


Shielding yourself from wrongful gaol time: What beyond reasonable doubt really means

Peter Woodhouse, partner at Ben Aulich & Associates, looks at a fundamental jury question in criminal trials.

I have been involved in many jury trials and I cannot think of one where a jury has not asked a question to the effect: “what does beyond reasonable doubt mean?”

Our criminal justice system has two entwined fundamental principles at its foundation:

  1. The presumption of innocence;
  2. The requirement for the prosecution to prove criminal charges beyond reasonable doubt.

The requirement to prove criminal charges beyond reasonable doubt is often referred to as the criminal standard of proof.

Notably, that differs from the standard of proof required for civil matters – the balance of probabilities.  The balance of probabilities is easier for laypersons to understand.  It is often defined as “more likely than not” or quantified as 50% + 1.

The concept of “beyond reasonable doubt” is more difficult to define.  Many judges in many Courts have tried to define the phrase.  Most have failed and been criticised by appellate Courts along the way.

If you do find yourself on a jury and you do find yourself pondering the meaning of “beyond reasonable doubt” chances are the presiding Judge will answer with something like: these are words in the ordinary English usage and mean exactly what they say.  I expect that would not be very helpful to you.  Sometimes, the best way to understand what “beyond reasonable doubt” means is to know what it’s not:

  1. Grave suspicion is not proof beyond reasonable doubt;
  2. Thinking the accused probably did it is not proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Some jurors seem to fail to appreciate that it is quite a high threshold.  If there is any doubt that is not fanciful the accused shall be acquitted.

It is important to remember that in our criminal justice system an accused person is innocent until proven guilty and they do not have to prove their innocence.  Often referred to as the golden thread running through the web that is criminal law, the requirement of the prosecution to prove criminal allegations beyond reasonable doubt is a high threshold and one that goes to the very heart of a fair and just legal system.

Peter Woodhouse, Partner