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  • Namita Pawa

What is the burden and standard of proof in a criminal case?

You’ve heard the words "beyond reasonable doubt" on TV. What does it really mean and how does this apply in criminal matters?

Before we address that question, the first question to deal with is who has the burden of proving the allegations. A case is generally brought by the Crown Prosecution Service on behalf of the State. There are a number of other prosecuting authorities, which include the Serious Fraud Office, NCA, and Health and Safety Executive, to name only few. Prosecutions can also be brought as private prosecutions by an individual.

The party bringing the prosecution has the responsibility of the burden of proof. This means that the onus is on them to prove the guilt of the accused by presenting evidence and arguments that convince the judge or jury of the accused’s guilt to a high degree of certainty. If the prosecution fails to meet this burden, the accused should be presumed innocent.

The standard of proof is the degree to which the prosecution must prove its case in order to succeed.

In criminal matters, this is a high standard of proof and requires the prosecution to prove the case against the defendant "beyond reasonable doubt". But what does this actually mean? Well, this means that the prosecution must prove guilt of the accused to a degree, that leaves no reasonable doubt in the mind of the juror or the judge. It is a high standard intended to protect the rights of the accused and to ensure a fair trial.

In trials the expression "beyond reasonable doubt" is also commonly expressed as the prosecution having to prove the case, such that the jury or magistrates are 'sure' of the defendant’s guilt. The word ‘sure’ is far easier to understand.

The 'Presumption of innocence' refers to the right of defendant to have the prosecution prove that they are guilty, rather than them having to prove that they are innocent – also commonly referred to as 'innocent until proved guilty'.

In very rare circumstances, the burden of proof, which ordinarily rest with the prosecution, will fall on or shift to the defence. And example, in criminal matters is, in circumstances, where the defence of insanity is raised, then the burden shifts to the defence to establish that defence on the ‘balance of probabilities’.

This lower standard is what is applied in civil proceedings where being 'sure' is not necessary but instead asking the question of whether it is more likely than not that the defence of insanity, in this example, applies.

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


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