Beyond Reasonable Doubt
“Beyond reasonable doubt”, the well known principle of common law has acted like a savior for the guilty. Anybody who is capable of hiring a witty lawyer can go scot-free just by raising a smallest possible doubt.
Man is a rational being. Due to this ‘rationality’ everyone differs drastically from others. The reasonability of his thoughts and consequently his decisions cannot be measured. For instance a glass can be half full for one while it may be half empty for others. Similarly what might be reasonable for one might be totally absurd for others. Maximum criminal justice systems of the world follow the principle that the guilt of an accused should be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Indian criminal justice system also works on the same lines and it is for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused has committed an offence with requisite mens rea.
There is no straight jacket formula on the basis of which the guilt of the accused is said to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Moreover, there is no way to determine objectively, the reasonability of the doubt that the judge might have. So it depends solely on the Judge to say whether he is convinced by the arguments of the prosecution or that there still remains a degree of reasonable doubt so as to impart the judgment in the favor of the defense.
This follows from the cardinal principle that the accused is presumed to be innocent unless proved to be guilty by the prosecution and the accused is entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt. Thus giving false information or failing to prove his innocence is no ground to base conviction of accused and on the contrary it offends the very basic principle of Criminal Jurisprudence which lays the burden on the Prosecution to prove the offence against the accused.
Another golden thread that runs through the web of administration of criminal justice is that if two views are possible on the evidence - one pointing to the guilt and other towards innocence, the view which is favorable to the accused should be accepted. It seems to be very similar to the principle, called Benefit of Doubt which is widely used in cricket. The principle runs as follows- “if there is any doubt in the mind of the Umpire, then the benefit of it should go in the favor of Batsman.” But life takes a different track off the Cricket field. Think of a situation where a cold blooded murderer is being tried for the murder that he committed. But as there is 0.1% of doubt in the mind of judge, so he is able to escape from the clutches of law. Thus it is clear that the prosecution has to stand on its own legs and cannot take advantage of the defense put forth by the accused even if he was found to be false or improbable.
This principle of reasonability is offspring of another principle on which our entire Criminal justice System is based- “let 100 criminals go untouched, but one innocent should not be punished”. That is the reason why the guilt of the accused is to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.
The Civil Justice System stands on a bit different footing. In Civil cases the person who asserts a fact need not prove it beyond reasonable doubt. Instead we have “Preponderance of Probability” for him. Although theoretically, there is a lot of difference between the two, but looking from the practical aspect the only difference is that in Preponderance of Probability, the “degree” or the “likelihood” of happening of the fact ascertained is a bit lower as compared to beyond reasonable doubt.
In criminal cases, the guilt should be proved beyond any reasonable doubt that a reasonable man with ordinary prudence can have. There should be no doubt whether the accused is guilty or not. If there is slightest doubt, no matter how small it is, the benefit will go the accused. In Indian legal system the provision regarding Burden of Proof and how it is to discharged are grandeurly laid down in Chapter VII of the Evidence Act, 1872. The rule is that whoever alleges a fact must prove it. In a criminal trial it is the prosecution who alleges that the accused has committed the offence with requisite mens-rea and so the burden lies upon the prosecution to prove the same.
Apex court in Abdulla Mohammed v. State explained the difference between “Burden” and “onus” it was held that “Burden of proof lies upon the person who has to prove a fact and it never shifts, but the Onus of proof shifts”. Such a shifting of Onus is a continuous process in evaluation of evidence. so basically the burden lies on the Prosecution but there are times when the accused is called upon to prove that his case falls under an exception. Then the onus is on the accused and it is considered as discharged if the accused person succeeds in proving the preponderance of probability in his favor and he need not prove his stand beyond reasonable doubt.
But is there any fixed standard or formula by which the reasonability, which a Judge has to apply in a case, be calculated. Of course not! It is totally based upon the facts and the circumstances of the case and vehemently left on the discretion of the Judge and it might lead to corruption in our Judicial system. Moreover what if the prosecution is not able to discharge his burden properly? What if the defense counsel is able to raise a single piece of doubt? And the worst, think of a situation where two accused charged with similar offences, their cases going on parallel lines but before different Judges, having different degree of reasonability. Will it be justifiable that one of them gets benefit of doubt because his case according to “his” Judge could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt, while the other accused has to spend his entire life behind bars solely because he was “Unlucky” enough that his case came before the Judge having a bit higher degree of reasonability?
Moreover, is it such a big thing for today’s hi-tech modern criminals to generate a small doubt and thus leave the entire justice system to ponder around? Many a times it is seen that the accused go scot free laughing at the face of law because his case could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt. It is high time to think whether the cardinal principle of Criminal justice system has proved to be a boon for the society or a curse to it. The function of law is not to protect or advance the cause of any man or his property. On the contrary its main function is to help him in safeguarding his life and liberty.
So, two important questions remain to be answered. Firstly is there any need for some change and secondly, was anything wrong in the approach which our law makers gave us many years ago? If not then can those principles be applied as such even today? Law cannot be static. It has to be dynamic enough to adapt itself as per the changing needs of our society.