Concept of “Reasonable Doubt” in Canadian Criminal Law

PUBLISHED ON May 18, 2024

Three cornerstones of the criminal justice system are that:

  • A person charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent;
  • The Crown has the burden of proving the case;
  • In terms of proving the case against an accused, the prosecutor must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

From television and movies, we are used to hearing the term “reasonable doubt” and proof of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But what is “reasonable doubt” and how is the standard applied by the courts?

This article will explain the concept of reasonable doubt. It is for informational purposes only. Should you require legal advice, contact a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto today.

What does “reasonable doubt” mean?

A “reasonable doubt” is not a far-fetched doubt and it is not a doubt based on sympathy or prejudice. It is a doubt based on common sense and reason and it is a doubt that arises logically from the evidence, or lack of evidence.

The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that a judge or jury must be “sure” of guilt before proof beyond a reasonable doubt has been reached. In Canada, “maybe guilty”, guilt “on a balance of probabilities”, and even “probably guilty” are not enough to convict an accused. On the other hand, the prosecutor is not required to prove guilt to a level of “absolute certainty”. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt”, however, comes much closer to absolute certainty than to proof on a balance of probabilities. The bottom line is this: in a criminal trial, the judge/jury must be sure of guilt before finding an accused guilty of a crime.

Why is this standard of proof so important?

Creating such a high standard before an accused person can be convicted is so important because if we don’t live up to that high burden, if a person can be convicted without meeting this criteria, then innocent people are at risk. Such a high standard minimizes the possibility that an innocent person can be convicted and punished for a crime they did not commit. It is a measurement, a common measurement, that is consistent and used for every case, for every accused person, and for every charge no matter what we think of the offence or the alleged offender.

How does “reasonable doubt” relate to the other cornerstones of justice?

It goes hand in hand with the presumption of innocence. Every person in Canada who is accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent and the judge/jury must keep that presumption of innocence forefront in their mind until and unless the prosecution has proven guilt. This, too, protects everyone because it minimizes the possibility of a wrongful conviction: it is reprehensible to think that an innocent person could be tainted and punished for a crime that they did not commit. This is also why an accused has the right to a fair trial and is not required to prove anything. Again, the prosecutor is required to prove guilt; an accused does not have to prove their innocence.

The presumption of innocence can only be overcome by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If, at the end of a case, a judge or jury is left with a reasonable doubt as to whether a defendant is guilty of an offence, it is the duty of the judge/jury to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt and to return a verdict of not guilty of that offence.

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Brian Ross is a founding partner at Canada’s largest criminal Law firm, Rusonik, O’Connor, Robbins, Ross & Angelini, LLP. Prior to founding this firm, Brian was a partner at Pinkofskys, a leading law firm famous for its vigorous defence of its clients.

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