Beyond Reasonable Doubt, What Does It Mean?

“Beyond reasonable doubt” is a common phrase in any criminal law television show or jury trial. But what does it mean, and what is its relevance of it? “Beyond reasonable doubt” is one of the three critical pillars of our criminal justice system in Queensland. 


A Difference in Standards

In civil and criminal trials, there is what is known as a “standard of proof”, which a party must meet for the Court to find in their favour. 

In a civil trial (for example, a personal injury case), the standard of proof is on the “balance of probabilities”. The test used by the Court is one of whether it is more likely than not that something happened. For example, is it more likely than not that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injury? This test is much lower than the criminal standard, which is beyond reasonable doubt. 

The prosecution in a criminal trial must prove a defendant is guilty of a criminal offence “beyond reasonable doubt”. Beyond reasonable doubt is the highest legal standard of proof. 


Why Have Such A High Standard Of Proof?

There is an excellent reason the standard is high: innocent people are accused of criminal offences. The standard of proof upholds the presumption of innocence of an accused—the standard acts as a safety measure to prevent innocent people from being convicted. While the standard is not foolproof, as innocent people are convicted of criminal offences, it is our best.


What Does “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” Mean?

There is no legal definition of what “beyond reasonable doubt” means. The Courts leave it to the jury to use their understanding of reasonable doubt. At the end of a trial, juries are told that they must acquit and find the defendant not guilty if they have a reasonable doubt about a defendant’s guilt. They are also told that they must convict and find the defendant guilty if they have no reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. 

While there is no legal definition of “beyond reasonable doubt”, we know what it is not. For example, the following would not be “beyond reasonable doubt”:

  • I think they did it.
  • Maybe they did it.
  • It is possible they did it.
  • I’m almost sure they did it.
  • It is very likely they did it.


A Presumption of Innocence

The presumption of innocence means the prosecution is burdened to prove the charge against an accused. It means an accused is innocent, and no guilt can be presumed until the prosecution has proved the charge “beyond reasonable doubt”. Until the prosecution evidence satisfies a Magistrate, Judge or Jury of an accused’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence remains. The presumption guarantees an accused a fair trial. If there is any reasonable doubt in the mind of the Magistrate, Judge or Jury, an accused must be acquitted of the offence they are charged with.


A Defendant Doesn’t Need to Prove Anything

In a criminal trial, the onus of proof is on the prosecution to prove a defendant is guilty of a criminal offence “beyond reasonable doubt”. If the prosecution doesn’t prove the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the defendant must be acquitted and found not guilty. The defendant does not need to prove anything. 


Who Decides Whether The Test Has Been Met?

The decision maker will depend on where the criminal trial takes place. Suppose the trial is in the Magistrates Court. In that case, a Magistrate will decide if the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The jury will determine the issue if the trial is before a jury.  


What if they “Get it Wrong”?

If a jury finds a defendant guilty of a criminal offence, but the defendant thinks they got it wrong, their decision can be appealed. Such a ground of appeal is generally framed as “the jury’s verdict was unreasonable and cannot be supported having regard to the evidence”. To succeed on this ground of appeal is very difficult and requires experienced legal representation. 

Suppose you or someone you know is contemplating an appeal. In that case, getting legal advice from experienced criminal lawyers is best. You can save a lot of time and money in the process.


Trust In The System

If you are charged with a criminal offence, the standard of proof of “beyond reasonable doubt” should give you some hope. Just because the police or the prosecution say you did something, their opinion doesn’t count. The prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that you committed the offence. This is a very high standard they must meet. 


Criminal Lawyers Brisbane Group- The Criminal Law Experts

If police charge you with a criminal offence in Brisbane, the best thing you can do is arm yourself with a Brisbane criminal defence lawyer.  But not any Brisbane criminal lawyer.

You need the best Brisbane criminal lawyers if you want the best result. Contact the Criminal Lawyers Brisbane Group today for confidential expert advice. 

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