How does a jury decide whether or not someone is guilty? It’s a huge question. How can 12 strangers determine the outcome of someone’s case, and how their life will look?
Ultimately in each case guilt will be dependent on the facts, but there is a standard of proof that must be met before the jury can sentence someone to jail. At Gallant Law, we understand the many challenges a jury will be confronted by when making this decision. At the same time, it’s incredibly important that juries understand the burden of proof and what specific conclusions they need to reach before determining whether or not someone is guilty.
So what is the burden of proof in a criminal proceeding?
In a criminal proceeding, the burden of proof requires that the prosecution prove that the person is guilty of the alleged crime ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. This means that the only logical conclusion that can be derived from the prosecution’s case is that the accused is guilty.
Importantly, it does not require that all doubt is eliminated. Simply that if there is doubt, this doubt is ‘unreasonable’ given the evidence the prosecution presented.
Does this apply to all cases?
‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is the standard of proof only for criminal cases. In civil cases, the standard of proof required is the ‘balance of probabilities’.
Why the different burdens of proof?
The burden of proof for criminal cases is deliberately higher due to the power imbalance between the accused and the prosecution. When a crime is committed, it is committed against the Crown (the State) as opposed to directly against a person (as is the case for civil proceedings).
Essentially, a criminal proceeding takes place between the State and the accused. The State is instantly better positioned than the accused to make its case, as it has a vast number of resources at its disposal (the police, the OPP and the prison system itself, just to name a few). In contrast, statistics show that time and time again that those most likely to offend are vulnerable peoples – those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, impacted by mental illness, or vulnerable in some other way.
The likely outcome of all this is that the accused going against the State looks something like the legal equivalent to David going against Goliath. And let’s not forget that the stakes are the highest they can be in certain criminal proceedings. An accused person is confronted by the possibility of total deprivation of their liberty if found guilty.
But with strong legal representation, an accused is able to even out the scorecard somewhat in the courtroom. Not only that, but our criminal justice system operates on the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Defence lawyers are tasked with putting the prosecution to proof and ensuring they prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – and if the prosecution can’t do so, there simply can’t be a guilty verdict.
Risks associated with the burden of proof
Keeping in mind our previous posts about the shocking number of wrongful convictions in Australia, the standard of proof is of the utmost importance in criminal cases to protect the accused against a wrongful finding of guilt. But that’s not to say it’s a perfect set-up; evidently, wrongful convictions still happen.
The big risk associated with the burden of proof is how individual jury members interpret ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Biases and predispositions can easily cloud the judgement of jury members. Ultimately, the court will direct juries how to evaluate the evidence. We can only hope that biases do not get in the way of determining whether or not someone committed the offence in question.