We have all seen the courtroom dramas where the accused are charged with criminal offences, and the State has to prove its case. Similarly, we are very familiar with the phrase, “beyond reasonable doubt”. But what does the phrase mean, and where does it fit in court cases?
In litigation, there is a distinction between civil litigation and criminal litigation.
Civil litigation in its simplest form is a dispute between two parties, whether people or companies/institutions. The party instituting the action must prove his case. This duty is referred to as the burden of proof or onus. The burden of proof in civil litigation is that the party alleging an occurrence must prove it on a balance of probabilities. This essentially means that something occurred more likely than not.
In criminal litigation, the State must prove its case against an accused regarding an alleged crime that was committed. Here the burden of proof is that the State must prove the accused guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The State will execute its duty if it proves all elements of a particular crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is beyond reasonable doubt?
In the case of Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions,1 it was established that there rests no onus on the accused to prove their innocence. That burden lies on the State and at no stage is the stage relieved of this burden of proof.
Proving a case beyond reasonable doubt includes the following: 2
Considering proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the court does not need certainty but rather a high degree of probability. Absolute certainty cannot be acquired. Therefore, proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. If the evidence against a man is so strong, leaving only the remote possibility in his favour, and if that remote possibility is possible but not in the least probable, the State has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. 3
Why is the burden of proof of criminal matters heavier than civil matters?
A well-known philosophical principle is that it is better to spare a guilty person than to make an innocent person suffer.
Lastly, our Constitution affords every person the right to be presumed innocent.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)