Most people know that for an individual to be convicted of a criminal offence, the Crown must prove his or her guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. At the same time, people are often confused over the exact meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In a criminal trial, the verdict rests on the meaning of these words.
The bad news is that there is no exact universally-accepted definition of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Judges and legal scholars (also known as “jurists”) have been writing for centuries on the best way to explain exactly what the court means when they speak of a reasonable doubt. Individuals tend to “have a feeling” of what reasonable doubt is, but often find it very hard to articulate what the phrase means in the context of a trial. In R. v. Lifchus, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) stated that, in the context of a trial, the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” has a specific legal meaning which should not be confused with its ordinary every-day meaning. Thus, our understanding of reasonable doubt must be much clearer than a mere “feeling”; we must be able to articulate a definition of reasonable doubt so that the concept is applied in the same way by all judges and jurors. The good news is that a number of legal decisions have articulated to a much more precise definition of this important legal term.
Much of the debate over the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” has evolved out of appellate decisions both in the provincial Courts of Appeal and in the Supreme Court of Canada. That is because the adequacy of a judge’s explanation to the jury as to the definition of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is an issue that often arises on appeal. In cases which are heard by a judge and jury, the judge must “charge” (i.e., instruct) the jury on points of law before the jury is sequestered to reach a verdict. One of the points of law upon which a trial judge must instruct the jury, is the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Sometimes, the Crown or Defence may argue on appeal that the trial judge’s charge to the jury on this issue misled the jury as to the burden of proof, and that such error resulted in a miscarriage of justice. For example, in Lifchus, the judge instructed the jury to think of the concept of “reasonable doubt” in the ordinary everyday sense of the word. On appeal, the SCC concluded that this instruction misled the jury, and that instead the judge should have instructed them on the precise legal meaning of “reasonable doubt”. Appeals such as the Lifchus case provide further direction to trial judges on the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”. These legal opinions lead us to a clearer understanding of the term.
The standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” requires more than a hunch that the accused committed the crime but less than absolute certainty. In the landmark case, Woolmington, the House of Lords (the highest court of appeal in England) described the standard as 75 to 99% certainty. Years later in the case R. v. W. (D.) the SCC had the opportunity to comment on the meaning of reasonable doubt. In W. (D.) the SCC considered the relationship between reasonable doubt and the case built by the defence. They concluded that the jury need not believe all of the defendant’s evidence to find that there is reasonable doubt as to his or her guilt. There is a danger that the jury will interpret reasonable doubt as coming down to an evaluation of who they believe more, the Crown or the accused. If the jury were to interpret the phrase that way, establishing “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” would require that the Crown do no more than built a case that is slightly more likely or slightly more credible than the defense’s case. In W. (D.) the SCC points out that this type of reasoning “excludes the third alternative; namely, that the jury, without believing the accused, after considering the accused’s evidence in the context of the evidence as a whole, may still have a reasonable doubt as to the accused’s guilt”. This could happen in situations where – despite the accused’s lack of credibility – the Crown case is simply too weak to support a finding of guilt. W. (D.) tells us a little more about the meaning of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt”, by explaining that if the jury (i) believes the accused’s evidence or (ii) does not believe the accused evidence but nonetheless is left in a state of reasonable doubt as to the accused’s guilt after considering his evidence in the context of the evidence as a whole, they must acquit.
During a trial, the burden of proof is on the Crown to prove that the accused committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The Crown must establish all the elements of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, if the offence alleged is “assault causing bodily harm” the Crown would have to prove not only that an assault took place beyond a reasonable doubt, but also that the injuries inflicted during the assault meet the legal definition of “bodily harm” beyond a reasonable doubt. (Of course, an accused could be convicted of the included offence of assault.) Moreover, the Crown must also prove that the accused had the mens rea (or “guilty mind”) required to commit the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, if the offence is assault, the Crown would have to prove that the accused intended to assault the victim beyond a reasonable doubt.
The high burden of proof placed on the Crown is a reflection of the presumption of innocence — the “golden thread that runs through the criminal law”. If the state does not discharge its duty and prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence remains intact and the defendant must be acquitted.