A Reasonable Doubt: Why the Presumption of Innocence Matters

A Reasonable Doubt? Justice must be blind, and deaf to public pressure.
Justice must be blind, and deaf to public pressure.

I love my freedom. By that I mean, I love to be able to go to Tim Hortons and buy a coffee on a whim, at any time of day or night. I love to walk outside and smell the fresh air. I love to travel and see the world.

Reasonable Doubt is the Law

What a terrifying thing it is when all the powers of government, exercised through the police and the judiciary are lined up against a private citizen to deprive him or her of their life, or their freedom. Enjoying the Golden Thread of Criminal Law is one of the great privileges of living in a country with a heritage tied to the English legal tradition. Every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in our legal system. The presumption of innocence is inextricably intertwined with the notion of reasonable doubt. 

The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (now known as the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom), articulated this principle clearly in one very famous case:

Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner . . . the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained. ((1936) 25 Cr App R 72, [1935] UKHL 1, [1935] AC 462, [1935] 1 AC 462)

The basic elements of the golden thread are:

  • It is the duty of the prosecution to prove the case.
  • If reasonable doubt exists, there is no option, but, “the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal.”
  • No attempt to write down this right can be entertained.

Reasonable Doubt is Challenged

Sometimes our politicians seem to forget this (see here, and here). Movements that have good intentions can sometimes be guilty of violating this too. The #meetoo movement, for example, has done an admirable job of calling out systemic abuse by powerful perpetrators who once appeared to be “above the law.” But, what if a hash tagged individual is innocent? or what is the next movement is more sinister? What consequences could this bring out?

Every free citizen should be deeply concerned to understand and the importance of the Golden Thread principle. We did not have the presumption of innocence granted to us by a benevolent power. It was the development of centuries of conflict and of debate, of blood and sweat.

Centuries ago, the monarchs and lords ruled nations with personal power over life and death. But in the 13thcentury the English Barons defeated King John on the field of battle and forced him to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter), which set the stage for the constitutional protections we take for granted.

Magna Carta required one right, known as the right of habeus corpus, a guarantee against illegal imprisonments. When this writ is filed, an accused person must be brought before a competent court. A court, and not a dictator will adjudicate the rightness of an imprisonment.

Reasonable Doubt is Defensible

The right to go before a court is important. The right to a presumption of innocence is vital. Along with the principle of reasonable doubt, they are our only defences against tyrannical powers. We may not like a certain jury verdict in a certain case. Government has all the resources it needs to prove its case. It has all the powers of the state at its disposal. If the prosecution can’t find a way to prove its case, maybe this should tell us something! We must be careful with unleashing the power of the state on an individual. The great English legal commentator and educator William Blackstone reminds us, “the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer” (source).



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