What Is "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt" In Canadian Criminal Law?

August 7, 2021

Reasonable Doubt

The standard of proof in a Canadian criminal trial is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the judge or jury must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. The Crown has the burden of proof. This means that the Crown must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the Crown fails to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge/jury must acquit the defendant. It is not up to the defendant or his or her criminal defence lawyer to prove the defendant’s innocence. At minimum, it is sufficient for the defence to argue that the Crown has failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The term “reasonable doubt” has a specific meaning in criminal law. The Supreme Court of Canada has offered a number of guidelines applicable to the concept of reasonable doubt. In our criminal justice system, every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The notion of reasonable doubt is inextricably intertwined with the presumption of innocence. In order to rebut the presumption of innocence, the prosecution must prove their case to the extent that a reasonable person could not have any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant.


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In R. v. Lifchus the Supreme Court of Canada offered some guidelines for understanding the reasonable doubt standard. According to Lifchus “reasonable doubt” must be based on “reason and common sense”. A doubt will not be considered “reasonable” if it is based on sympathy or prejudice. A reasonable doubt must also be logically connected to the evidence or lack of evidence presented by the Crown. The judge/jury does not need to be “absolutely certain” that the defendant is guilty to satisfy the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution need not prove guilt beyond any doubt whatsoever. Moreover, the judge/jury cannot acquit based on an imaginary or frivolous doubt.

However, the reasonable doubt standard requires more than simply that the jury be convinced that the defendant “probably” committed the crime or “likely” committed the crime. In R. v. Starr the court stated that the standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” is must closer to absolute certainty than to a balance of probabilities (“balance of probabilities” is the standard of proof in a civil case, it requires that the judge be satisfied that it is “more likely than not” that the respondent committed the acts in question, or, in other words, the judge must be satisfied that there is a minimum 51% chance that the respondent committed the acts in question). In short, reasonable doubt is something less than absolute certainty, but more than probable guilt. A judge/jury that concludes that the accused is “probably guilty” must acquit.

In R. v. W.(D.) the Supreme Court stated that it is not necessary that the jury believe the defendant’s evidence to acquit him or her. In laid down the following analysis to be followed in cases where credibility is in issue:

(1) If the jury believes the defendant’s evidence: obviously, if after reviewing all the evidence, the judge/jury believes the evidence of the defendant’s witnesses, the judge/jury must acquit the defendant;

(2) If after reviewing all the evidence the judge/jury does not believe the defendant’s evidence but is left with a reasonable doubt the judge/jury must acquit, and

(3) If after reviewing all the evidence the judge/jury is not left in doubt by the defendant’s evidence, but the Crown’s evidence is insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge/ jury must acquit. For example, if after reviewing the evidence the judge/jury is convinced that the defendant’s witnesses are lying, that does not in and of itself mean that the accused is guilty. The judge/jury must consider whether, on the basis of the evidence it does accept as true, it is convinced of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thus, the prosecution must prove it’s version of events beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution fails to do so, the defendant’s criminal defence lawyer does not need to enter any defence, since the Crown’s case alone is insufficient to result in a conviction.

To determine guilt, whether is a sexual assault case or a DUI case, the judge/jury must weigh all the facts and evidence submitted by the Crown attorney and criminal defence lawyer, and ascertain whether the evidence, taken as a whole, demonstrates that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of every essential element of the offence he or she has been charged with whether it’s break and enter or a domestic assault.

Jonathan Pyzer
Written By:
Jonathan Pyzer
Criminal Defence Lawyer (B.A., L.L.B.)
Jonathan is a highly skilled and sought after criminal defence lawyer who represents clients charged with criminal offences all over the Province of Ontario. He is a member in good-standing with the Law Society of Upper Canada, Criminal Lawyers’ Association and Toronto Lawyers Association.
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