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Understanding the Concept of “Reasonable Doubt” in Canadian Criminal Law

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4 months ago

If you’ve been charged with a criminal offence in Canada, you probably believe that Crown prosecutors will have an edge over you if the case proceeds to trial. Such thinking leads some defendants to plead guilty outright or agree to a seemingly favourable plea bargain offer from the Crown.

The Crown might hold an edge at trial depending on case details and evidence supporting the charges. However, criminal defendants have their own distinct advantage at trial because the onus is on the Crown to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Put another way, a defendant does not need to prove their innocence if the Crown cannot prove guilt beyond the reasonable doubt threshold.

With significant expertise in raising reasonable doubt in criminal cases for our Greater Toronto Area clients, the skilled criminal defence lawyers of Mass Tsang know how this fundamental legal principle works in practice. Let’s examine the reasonable doubt concept further so that you can better understand its importance in criminal trials and how it might benefit you if you face criminal charges.

Reasonable Doubt Intertwined with Presumption of Innocence

The beyond-a-reasonable doubt concept is a critical element of Canadian criminal law that evolved from common law. The idea serves as a linchpin of the most fundamental principle in our criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence. This principle is enshrined by Section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by giving anyone charged with an offence the right to:

“be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.”

The requirement that the Crown establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt upholds the presumption of innocence principle and helps prevent wrongful convictions. It encourages Crown prosecutors to be diligent about collecting credible evidence in their pursuit of a case and helps protect defendants from getting convicted due to weak or speculative evidence.

In criminal trials, the presumption of innocence exists until and unless the Crown can prove critical elements of their case beyond all reasonable doubt, a threshold with a very high bar established by Canadian Supreme Court precedents. To secure a conviction, the Crown must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, two essential elements of their case: “actus reus,” that the defendant committed the guilty act, and “mens rea,” that the defendant committed the offence with intent or knowledge.

Thus, competent criminal defence lawyers take every opportunity during a criminal trial to raise doubts about the validity of the Crown’s evidence and the alleged narrative about how the offence was committed. They pick apart evidence for potential flaws and call out any inconsistencies that might emerge in the Crown’s description of the criminal activity. Every successfully raised doubt weakens the Crown’s case and lessens the likelihood of a conviction.

The beyond-a-reasonable doubt concept is so essential that skilled criminal defence lawyers can raise their spectre in pre-trial negotiations to encourage prosecutors to withdraw charges or agree to other favourable settlement deals. During trial, reasonable doubts the defence presents can sometimes derail evidence and/or witness testimony to the point that the Crown is forced to withdraw the charges or the judge dismiss the case.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt as Interpreted by the High Court

Over the decades, the Supreme Court of Canada has clarified the beyond-a-reasonable doubt threshold in several precedent-setting decisions. In R. v. W.(D.) [1991] 1 R.C.S. case, justices established how to weigh reasonable doubt when a case outcome hinges upon weighing the credibility of the complainant’s evidence versus the defendant’s. Known as the WD test, the justices laid out the following methodology for assessing credibility:

  • “First, if you believe the evidence of the accused, obviously you must acquit.
  • Second, if you do not believe the testimony of the accused but you are left in reasonable doubt by it, you must acquit.
  • Third, even if you are not left in doubt by the evidence of the accused, you must ask yourself whether, on the basis of the evidence which you do accept, are you convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by that evidence of the guilt of the accused.”

The decision stressed that the onus is on the Crown to meet the reasonable doubt threshold because considering the defendant’s evidence can inherently switch the perceived burden of proof to the defence. Thus, even if a judge or jury finds that the defence’s evidence and/or testimony lacks credibility, it must consider whether the Crown’s evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In R. v. Lifchus [1997] 3 SCR 320 , the high court asserted that reasonable doubt must be based on reason and common sense and must have a logical connection to the evidence or lack of evidence. The decision also characterized the beyond a reasonable doubt threshold as being less than “absolute certainty” but more than “probably” or “likely” guilty. The high court’s ruling also made it clear that trial judges must fully explain the beyond reasonable doubt threshold to juries.

The Supreme Court elaborated further on the threshold in R. v. Starr [2000] 2 SCR 144 . In this decision, the justices characterized the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt threshold as being much closer to “absolute certainty” than the “balance of probabilities” standard used in civil trials. The decision also affirmed that a judge or jury must acquit a defendant if they can only determine they are “probably guilty.”

Consult with Mass Tsang to Strategize Your Criminal Defence

The raising of reasonable doubt is just one of many criminal defence strategies that Mass Tsang lawyers rely on to secure favourable outcomes for their Greater Toronto Area Clients. With more than 30 years of combined experience, our legal team has successfully defended over 1,000 clients in criminal cases and has a stellar reputation for delivering positive results through pre-trial negotiations and in court. To begin strategizing your criminal defence, schedule your free consultation by contacting us today .

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