Innocent until proven guilty…but what does actually mean?

We were asked to explain what ‘innocent until proven guilty’ practically means.

(Also known as the presumption of innocence.)

Well, first off it states that the starting point, if you like, is that a person is innocent of a crime until it can be shown that they are otherwise. Whilst this seems common sense, we saw just yesterday with the Vicky Pryce jury questions, that even what we consider simple concepts can become a little cloudy when not viewed in the abstract.

Essentially, it means that the burden of proof lies with he (or she) who makes an allegation, not he (or she) who denies it.

What does that mean?  Well it means that when someone is brought to court charged with a criminal offence, it is for the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty.

The defendant bears no burden of proving anything and it is not his task to prove his innocence – There is no obligation for the defendant to do anything at all

A defendant does not have to answer questions in a police interview, nor provide what is called a defence case statement (a document setting out the basics of their defence). Similarly, they do not have to give evidence at trial.  In fact, they are not obliged to provide an explanation (or an answer) to any of the issues posed by the prosecution.

Juries are permitted to draw adverse inferences from a defendant’s silence and so most defendant’s do in some greater or lesser extent, ‘answer’ the allegations against them. We will deal with this in another post.

A person cannot be imprisoned (or otherwise punished) for a crime unless they have been proven guilty to the required standard

What sort of society would we live in if people could be imprisoned based on spurious allegations which had been untested by a criminal trial? ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ protects individuals and organisations from being unfairly punished for allegations against them which have not been shown to be true.

What is the burden and standard of proof?

Burden of proof – this is the duty to prove or disprove a disputed fact or assertion.

Standard of proof – this is the level to which something must be proved.

The prosecution proves its case if the jury, having considered all the evidence relevant to the charge they are considering, are sure that the defendant is guilty.

In the Pryce trial yesterday, Sweeny J when asked to explain what beyond reasonable doubt meant, said, ‘a doubt that is reasonable – these are ordinary English words’.

What about evidence?

Well as a case is brought by the prosecution, and they have the burden of proof, it is for them to collect the evidence to reinforce their claims that the defendant is guilty as they so allege.

Of course, the defendant has a right of reply (to answer the allegations made against him or her) and to call his own evidence (to reinforce his claims of innocence).

6 thoughts on “Innocent until proven guilty…but what does actually mean?

  1. Andrew

    A very good illustration of this obvious truth is that in a case of rape where the defence is consent (which is most of them) and in a case of domestic violence in which the defence is total fabrication, accident or self-defence (which is nearly all of them) the use of the words victim and perpetrator is profoundly prejudicial and wrong. Complainant and defendant, please, every time, and when taking the Chair in the Magistrates’ Court I have pulled up prosecutors over that!

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  6. Robbie McGill

    Logically then no one can be arrested, charged or brought to court until they have been proven (how??) guilty ????


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