Do you know what "reasonable doubt" means in criminal law? (2023)

What does 'reasonable doubt' mean?

The expression "reasonable doubt" is often heard in the context of criminal law. The words "reasonable" and "doubtful" are common and easy to understand. However, when combined into the legal phrase "reasonable doubt", the resulting expression has no common meaning and it is an error on the part of the judge in fact to understand it in its common meaning. The concept of reasonable doubt is closely linked to the most fundamental principle of the criminal justice system, which is the presumption of innocence. Therefore, it is extremely important to really understand this concept.

burden of proof

In criminal law, an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests with the Crown: the Crown must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that burden never changes. The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is higher than the standard of proof in civil actions, which is proof based on the balance of probabilities.

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R . v. Lifchus , [1997] 3 RCS 320

In case of R . v. Lifchus , [1997] 3 SCR 320, the Supreme Court of Canada explained and defined the concept of reasonable doubt. In its discussion of this concept, the Court establishes that a reasonable doubt cannot be based on sympathy or prejudice and must not be imaginary or frivolous. The Crown is not obliged to prove its case with absolute certainty, as such an unrealistic standard could rarely be achieved ( Lifchus , pair. 31). Evidence establishing a likelihood of guilt is also not sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt ( Lifchus , pair. 32). A reasonable doubt is based on reason and common sense. It is logically connected with evidence or lack of evidence ( Lifchus , par. 36).

Summary of the Supreme Court of Canada

In its own words, the Supreme Court of Canada summarized the concept of reasonable doubt as follows ( Lifchus , paragraphs. 36, 37):

  • 36 […]* the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is inextricably intertwined with the fundamental principle for all criminal trials, the presumption of innocence;
  • the burden of proof rests with the prosecution throughout the trial and never shifts to the defendant;
  • a reasonable doubt is not a doubt based on sympathy or prejudice;
  • rather, it is based on reason and common sense;
  • is logically connected with evidence or lack of evidence;
  • it does not imply proof of absolute certainty; it is not a proof beyond any doubt, nor an imaginary or frivolous doubt; It is
  • More is required than proof that the defendant is probably guilty: a jury that concludes only that the defendant is probably guilty must acquit.
  • 37On the other hand, certain references to the required test standard should be avoided. For example:
  • describe the term “reasonable doubt” as a common expression that has no special meaning in the context of criminal law;
  • invite jurors to apply the same standard of proof to the task before them that they apply to the important, or even the most important, decisions in their own lives;
  • equating proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" with proof "of moral certainty";
  • qualify the word “doubt” with adjectives other than “reasonable”, such as “serious”, “substantial” or “disturbing”, that could mislead the jury; It is
  • instructing jurors that they can convict if they are "certain" that the defendant is guilty, before providing them with a proper definition of the meaning of the words "beyond reasonable doubt".

to read full Lifchus decision, access the following link:

You can also find other Supreme Court decisions on the Supreme Court website:

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Credibility assessment and evidence beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial

The standard of proof in criminal trials is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a high standard of proof and much higher than the civil standard of proof on a balance of probabilities.

Competing Narratives

In criminal cases, the question for the trial judge (the judge alone or the judge and jury) is whether the evidence presented, taken together, establishes the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. Of particular importance in cases where the evidence reveals two (or more) competing narratives, the judge must not actually decide the case simply by choosing between the narratives presented. Doing so would not be true to the load and would dilute the test pattern. (R. v. Debassige, 2021 ONCA 0484, paragraph 126, hereinafter referred to as Debassige).

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Thus, if the judge in fact must not choose between different narratives, how should a judge in fact determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person?

The main case on the subject is Case R. v. W.(D.), [1991] 1 S.C.R. 742 (hereinafter referred to as W.D.). In W.D., the Supreme Court established a series of three steps to ensure that a judge of fact remains focused on the principle of reasonable doubt when confronted with conflicting versions of relevant events (Debassige, para. 127).

The three stages of WD are defined as follows:

  1. If the judge actually believes the defendant's evidence, the judge should actually acquit.
  2. If the trial judge does not believe the defendant's testimony, but the defendant leaves reasonable doubt, the trial judge should acquit.
  3. Even if the investigator is not called into question by the defendant's evidence, the investigator must ask himself whether, on the basis of the evidence he accepts, he is unreasonably convinced. doubt by this proof of the defendant's guilt.

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common ground

A common reason for appeal regarding W.D. is that the evidence was not correctly presented to the judge of the facts. In other words, in a jury case, that the evidence was not presented to the jury in the exact terms in which it was presented in the W.D. by the Supreme Court. In the case of a single-judge trial, the same complaint arises that, in his decision, the judge, referring to W.D., did not present the evidence as the Supreme Court did. However, in several cases concerning the W.D. evidence, the courts have made it clear that the evidence need not be stated literally as expressed in the W.D. The Ontario Court of Appeals recently made that reminder in the Debassige case and declared a draw. 127 that:

From W.(D.) himself, and from the myriad decisions that follow, it is clear that the steps need not be rigidly expressed by a fact-finder, nor articulated in exactly the way that W.(D.) suggests. a layman. judge of fact: W.(D.), on p. 758; r v. S. (W.D.), [1994] 3 S.C.R. 521, pg. 533; and C.L.Y. , in paragraph 7. [emphasis added]

The Court in Debassige explained in par. 129 that what is critical is not so much whether the precise formula proposed in W.(D.) was faithfully pronounced in the final instructions to the jury, but rather whether the jury was properly informed of the charge and the standard of test they must apply to decide whether the Crown has proved the essential elements of the accused offense beyond a reasonable doubt [emphasis added].

How should an investigator decide a defendant's guilt or innocence?

So if the statement of evidence is not what matters here, how is a judge actually to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant? That determination must be based on the totality of the evidence and whether it leaves the trial judge in reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. In other words, the determination of guilt must be based not only on the competing narratives, but on the totality of the evidence presented to the judge of the fact. One of the narratives presented at trial may sound more convincing than the other, and yet, when considered with the rest of the evidence, it may still leave the judge in reasonable doubt. In this case, the judge of the facts must acquit the defendant. In the very words of the Court of Appeal in Debassige:

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[130] The principles expressed in formula W.(D.) underscore the relationship between credibility and reasonable doubt. They make it clear that reasonable doubt applies to credibility. In instruction to the jury, this relationship must be explained. The jury must not be left with the impression or understanding of what is said or not said that it must decide the case according to its preference for the conflicting versions presented in the evidence. Rather, the jury should understand that their verdict should be based on whether, along with the evidence, they have a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. [emphasis added]


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