If you’ve watched any legal shows on TV, one of the only accurate things that happens is when the jury gets told they need to be satisfied about something “beyond reasonable doubt”.
But what does that actually mean? How much doubt is too much? Why is this the test?
Important Note on the Beyond Reasonable Doubt Test
The concepts around beyond reasonable doubt described in this article generally apply to the burden of proof when it comes to trials for crimes in Queensland.
However, there are some cases when you might intuitively think the test should be “beyond reasonable doubt” whereas it is actually not.
As always, it’s worth consulting with your criminal lawyer to know for sure which test is going to apply to your matter, and how the evidence in question seems to stack up.
A Presumption of Innocence
A basic starting point of the criminal legal system is that it is better for a guilty person to go free than it is for an innocent person to be imprisoned. Naturally some people do not agree with this.
This results in two things:
- You are, at least in the eyes of the law, presumed innocent unless proven guilty; and
- To prove you guilty, the evidence needs to be pretty compelling.
But how compelling exactly does it need to be?
A Difference in Standards
Did you know that if a business sues another business for money, it doesn’t need to prove things “beyond reasonable doubt”?
Instead it just needs to prove things “on the balance of probabilities”. That is, to prove that it is more likely than not something happened a particular way. Of course, evidence based proof is always best.
Yet when we come to criminal matters, we face the underlying philosophy we mentioned above.
As a result, Courts won’t send people to prison because something was “more likely than not”. To do so runs an unacceptably high risk that an innocent person will go to jail.
This starts to highlight just how significant the bar of “beyond reasonable doubt” is. The prosecution needs to go well beyond what would be needed in a civil case to establish guilt in a criminal matter.
So Just how High is Proof “Beyond Reasonable Doubt”?
To get to “beyond reasonable doubt” the prosecution needs to convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation for what occurred other than the guilt of the person charged.
One key term here is reasonable.
Let’s say the defence puts forward a version of events that depends on the jury accepting that aliens committed the relevant offence. That is unlikely to achieve anything – it’s not a reasonable explanation.
But if three people were all “on the scene”, two are unaccounted for and only one of them has been charged, this might start to cast some doubt on the prosecution’s version of events.
Importantly, the Defendant Doesn’t Need to Prove Anything
While sometimes a defendant might wish to run a plausible alternative version of events as what actually occurred, the defendant does not need to prove anything at all.
That is, the defendant does not need to convince the jury that events A,B and C occurred instead of what the prosecution is alleging.
Instead, the defence just needs to contend that A, B and C are a reasonable alternative explanation for the events, that explain things without requiring a finding of guilt.
That is – to create “reasonable doubt”.
So even though the jury might not necessarily accept the defendant’s alternative explanation, if that alternative is reasonable and explains events, then the jury could rationally find the defendant not guilty.
Who Decides Whether the Test has Been Met?
The decision is made by whoever is making the findings of “fact”.
In many cases that is the jury.
Sometimes it is the judge.
If the jury is deciding, the judge will direct them about the things we are discussing in this article to ensure that they are making decisions based on the correct tests.
What if they “Get it Wrong”?
What happens if you believe the jury got it wrong? Perhaps they gave a verdict of guilty and you believe they could not have reasonably done so.
There are some grounds of appeal you can pursue after a jury trial finds against you. That said, it is not as simple as telling an appeal Court that the “jury got it wrong” and asking them to make the decision all over again.
If you need to appeal a decision, it’s definitely one to get legal advice on before proceeding.
A Long-Standing Test
While members of the public and the media sometimes comment on “wrong” decisions by juries, weighing up evidence to arrive at a verdict is a heavy task and most jurors take their roles seriously. A finding of guilt requires a significant threshold, given the major consequences for the individuals involved.
This is why the “reasonable doubt” test has been around for a long time and likely will continue into the future.
If you have been charged with an offence, then the best thing to do to understand the evidence against you and whether it is likely to meet these tests, is to get advice from a criminal lawyer. Call our defence team now on 07 5522 5777.