Beyond reasonable doubt: what does it mean?

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’s 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

  • The State must prove that the accused committed an unlawful act or omission (hereinafter, referred to as “active”, which may include an omission). This is whether an act is prohibited by common law or statute. Murder is a common law crime that we all ought to know is a prohibited act.
  • If the offence is consequential in nature, the State must prove a causal link between the act and the result of such an act constituting the crime. If a person throws a brick and causes that person’s death, the act of throwing the brick would constitute a causal. Therefore, the State must prove that the accused threw the brick, which caused the victim’s death.
  • The unlawfulness of the act must also be proven by the State insofar as there are no defences forming grounds for justification of the act. This would be, inter alia, a private defence necessity and consent. In the above example, depending on the circumstances and if all requirements are met, a person may be deemed to have acted in self-defence. If charged with a crime, he may be acquitted on the grounds that his prohibited actions were justified.
  • The State must prove that the perpetrator is criminally liable by establishing fault. Fault is established by proving that the perpetrator either had the intention to act or was negligent. Whether intention or negligence must be proven is dependent on the alleged crime. If an accused is charged with murder, the State must prove that he had the intention (dolus) to cause the death of another. Considering the crime of culpable homicide, the State must only prove negligence.The exception to this rule is when mental illness is advanced as a defence. In this case, the burden of proof shifts to the accused and must prove on the balance of probabilities.
  • Lastly, the State must prove guilt on the part of the accused.

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.

Reference List:

  • L.E.A.D Criminal Court Practice 2020
  • Miller v Minister of Pensions [1947] 2 All E.R 372 at 373
  • Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions 1935 A.C. 462

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)

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