Reasonable doubt

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Beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction in most adversarial legal systems.[citation needed]

Generally the prosecution bears the burden of proof and is required to prove their version of events to this standard. This means that the proposition being presented by the prosecution must be proven to the extent that there could be no "reasonable doubt" in the mind of a "reasonable person" that the defendant is guilty. There can still be a doubt, but only to the extent that it would not affect a reasonable person's belief regarding whether or not the defendant is guilty. "The shadow of a doubt" is sometimes used interchangeably with reasonable doubt, but this extends beyond the latter, to the extent that it may be considered an impossible standard. Reasonable doubt is therefore used.

If doubt does affect a "reasonable person's" belief that the defendant is guilty, the jury is not satisfied beyond "reasonable doubt". The precise meaning of words such as "reasonable" and "doubt" are usually defined within jurisprudence of the applicable country.


By jurisdiction


The use of "reasonable doubt" as a standard requirement in the Western justice system originated in medieval England. In English common law prior to the "reasonable doubt" standard, passing judgment in criminal trials had severe religious repercussions for jurors. According to Christian law prior to the 1780s: "the Juryman who finds any other person guilty, is liable to the Vengeance of God upon his Family and Trade, Body and Soul, in this world and that to come."[1] It was also believed "In every case of doubt, where one’s salvation is in peril, one must always take the safer way.... A judge who is in doubt must refuse to judge."[1] It was in reaction to these "religious fears"[1] that "reasonable doubt" was introduced in the late 17th century to English common law, thereby allowing jurors to more easily convict. Therefore the original use of the "reasonable doubt" standard was opposite to its modern use of limiting a juror's ability to convict.

However, juries in criminal courts in England are no longer customarily directed to consider whether there is "reasonable doubt" about a defendant's guilt. Indeed, a recent conviction was appealed after the judge had said to the jury "You must be satisfied of guilt beyond all reasonable doubt." The conviction was upheld but the Appeal Court made clear their unhappiness with the judge's remark, indicating that the judge should instead have said to the jury simply that before they can return a verdict of guilty, they "must be sure that the defendant is guilty".[2]

The principle of 'beyond reasonable doubt' was expounded in: Woolmington v DPP [1935] UKHL 1 [3]

"Juries are always told that if conviction there is to be the prosecution must prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. This statement cannot mean that in order to be acquitted the prisoner must " satisfy " the jury. This is the law as laid down in the Court of Criminal Appeal in R. v. Davies (8 C.A.R. 211) the head-note of which correctly states that where | intent is an ingredient of a crime there is no onus on the Defendant to prove that the act alleged was accidental. Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner, as to whether the prisoner killed the deceased with a malicious intention, the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained.


In Canada, the courts clearly believe that the expression "beyond a reasonable doubt" requires clarification for the benefit of the jury. The key ruling discussing this is R. v. Lifchus where one of the four issues addressed was whether a trial judge should provide a jury with an explanation of the expression. Following R. v. Brydon[4] the Supreme Court of Canada, in R. v. Lifchus[5], answered in the affirmative. In part, they wrote "The correct explanation of the requisite burden of proof is essential to ensure a fair criminal trial..."

The Court then addressed the second of the four issues before it by providing a lengthy discourse on the elements of a proper charge to the jury regarding the concept of "reasonable doubt". The Court did not prescribe any specific wording to be used by a given trial judge, but rather made recommendations outlining elements that should be included in the charge as well as elements that should be avoided.

The elements that should be included in the charge were: [5]

The elements to be avoided in the charge were: [5]

New Zealand

In New Zealand, jurors are typically told throughout a trial that the offence must be proved "beyond reasonable doubt", and judges usually include this in the summing-up.[6] There is no absolute prescription as to how judges should explain reasonable doubt to juries. Judges usually tell jurors that they will be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt if they "feel sure" or "are sure" that the defendant is guilty.[7] In line with appellate court direction, judges do little to elaborate on this or to explain what it means.[6][7]

Research published in 1999 found that many jurors were uncertain what "beyond reasonable doubt" meant. "They generally thought in terms of percentages, and debated and disagreed with each other about the percentage certainty required for 'beyond reasonable doubt', variously interpreting it as 100 per cent, 95 per cent, 75 per cent and even 50 per cent. Occasionally this produced profound misunderstandings about the standard of proof."[6]

United States

In the United States, juries must be instructed to apply the reasonable doubt standard when determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, but there is much disagreement as to whether the jury should be given a definition of "reasonable doubt."[8] In Victor v. Nebraska, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed disapproval of the unclear reasonable doubt instructions at issue, but stopped short of setting forth an exemplary jury instruction.[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c What Are the Origins of Reasonable Doubt?,, February 25, 2008.
  2. ^ R v Majid [2009] EWCA Crim 2563 (12 October 2009)
  3. ^ Woolmington v DPP [1935] UKHL 1 (23 May 1935)
  4. ^ R. v. Brydon, 4 S.C.R. 253 (S.C.C. 1995).
  5. ^ a b c R. v. Lifchus, 3 S.C.R. 320 (S.C.C. 1997) (“A jury must be provided with an explanation of the expression “reasonable doubt”. This expression, which is composed of words commonly used in everyday speech, has a specific meaning in the legal context.”).
  6. ^ a b c Young, Warren; Cameron, Neil; Tinsley, Yvette (November 1999) (PDF). Juries in Criminal Trials: Part Two. Preliminary Paper 37. 2. Wellington, New Zealand: Law Commission. p. 54. ISBN 1-877187-42-9. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Young, William (2003). "Summing-up to juries in criminal cases – what jury research says about current rules and practice". Crim LR 665: 674. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 
  8. ^ Diamond, H. A. (1990). "Reasonable doubt: to define, or not to define". Columbia Law Review 90 (6): 1716–1736. doi:10.2307/1122751. 
  9. ^ Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1 (1994)