What Is “Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt”?

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When someone is accused of a crime, the judge or jury must decide that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting them of the crime. However, what does this mean?

What’s a “standard of proof”?

During a trial, there are two ways of deciding who is right – “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” and the “balance of probabilities”. These are called “standards of proof”.

Criminal trials use proof beyond a reasonable doubt. During a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove all the essential elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt before a judge or jury can convict the accused.

What is “beyond a reasonable doubt”?

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a high bar to meet. This is because the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms guarantees the presumption of innocence. The idea is that this higher standard safeguards the presumption of innocence by reducing the chance that an innocent person will convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt can be difficult to define. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has said that reasonable doubt “falls much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities” and “that something less than absolute certainty is required, and that something more than probable guilt is required”.

Beyond a reasonable doubt in cases of sexual assault?

In cases involving sexual assault, it’s often not as simple as deciding which story the judge prefers. For example, in many cases, there will be two contradicting versions of events – that of the accused and of the accuser.  To decide the case, the judge must examine the credibility of both witnesses.

It’s possible for the judge to believe that both witnesses are credible and still acquit the accused. A judge may even decide that the accuser’s version of events is more likely than the accused’s. However, if the judge believes that there is reasonable chance that the accused’s defense is true, then the judge will likely conclude that there is a reasonable doubt and acquit the accused.

It’s important to note that this does not mean that the judge did not believe the accuser. In cases where the judge thinks that either version could be true, the judge is required to give the benefit of the doubt to the accused because of the presumption of innocence.

The difference between criminal trials and civil trials

However, if the accuser were to sue the accused in civil court for damages, the outcome may be different. This is because the standard of proof in a civil trial is the “balance of probabilities”. Here, the accuser would only have to convince the judge that their version is more likely than the accused’s version. This means that if they can show that there is a greater than 50% chance that they are right, they would win. 

To learn more, please read our article: Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases.