Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

As most people – within the criminal justice system or not – are aware, one of the cornerstones of our system is that an individual is presumed innocent unless their guilt has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. But what may be less clear for most people is, what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean? It’s not a term that you can just simply look up in the dictionary. And while people may think they know what it means, it is a legal term that has significant consequence for accused persons.

The Supreme Court of Canada in the past has provided us some guidance as to the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Court in a case from the late 1990s called R. v. Lifchus described this burden of proof as the silver thread intertwined with the golden thread of presumption of innocence in the criminal justice fabric. The burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” rests with the prosecutor and is never shifted to an accused person, where a “reasonable doubt” is based on reason or common sense, logically derived from the evidence or the absence of evidence. It is not meant to be an imaginary or frivolous doubt, and not based on sympathy or prejudice. While it is hard to put a percentage to what beyond a reasonable doubt is (should it be 99% guilty or 99.9%), it is closer to absolute certainty and is a higher standard than believing an accused person is probably guilty or even likely guilty.

Most recently, in March 2020, the Ontario Court of Appeal in R. v. Darnley reviewed a trial judge’s “reasonable doubt” direction to a jury. The appellant argued that the trial judge had misdirected the jury in multiple areas of the jury charge about the meaning of the burden “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Court reiterated the following:

• that a reasonable doubt need not arise from the evidence, that a trier of fact may have a reasonable doubt on the lack or absence of evidence.

• that an inference or reasonable doubt need not arise from proven facts but can arise from evidence, that although may not be proven to be true, has not been rejected.

• that a reasonable doubt is not about drawing a conclusion of innocence from the facts, because an acquittal can rest on an inability to conclude guilt.

• that an inference that tends to exculpate the accused does not need to be much stronger than speculation or guess but only that such an exculpatory inference need only to raise a reasonable doubt.

In Darnley, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions and sent the matter back for a retrial given the errors in the trial judge’s “reasonable doubt” direction to the jury. The Court held that the errors made confused or misled the jury, undermining the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof. Beyond a reasonable doubt is not a concept easily defined but it is one of the hallmarks of our criminal justice system. Over the years, appellate courts have provided guidance as to its meaning, most recently the Ontario Court of Appeal has reiterated some of the key principles of this burden.

For our blog on launching an appeal go here.

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