The Presumption of Innocence in Criminal Law

The presumption of innocence in the English legal system, on which English speaking countries based their own law, is that inference in the criminal law, whereby an accused is considered innocent until proven guilty in court. It arose from the English Common Law, rather than statute. This presumption is a defendant’s legal right and, because of this right, the burden of proof, which is a heavy one, in any criminal trial is on the prosecution, to prove all elements of its case rather than on the defendant to prove his innocence. This has many implications on the conduct of criminal trials. Most democratic legal systems follow the  presumption of innocence principle and endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights. Lord Sankey LC (in Woolmington v DPP 1935 AC 462) ably described the presumption of innocence as the “Golden thread” running through the English criminal law.

The phrase most often used to describe the principle is “innocent until proven guilty” coined by Sir William Garrow 1760-1840. During a criminal court case, it means that the prosecution must prove that the defendant currently before the court committed the crime with which he is charged. The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed all required elements of the crime, for example, where D is accused of theft, the prosecution must prove that the defendant took the article, that it belonged to someone else, and that he intended to “permanently deprive” that person of the article. If the property belonged to D, or he reasonably believed that he owned the property or that he had permission to use it or he only borrowed the item and fully intended to return it, he is not guilty of theft.

There is no legal burden on the Defendant to prove his innocence. The defendant need not give evidence to the court. The defendant need not call any witnesses or present evidence, and should he choose not to take the witness stand or present evidence the court must not draw any inference from this decision.

Juries and judges must decide cases solely on the evidence given in the court, ignoring any outside influences, neither can they draw any negative inference from the mere fact that the defendant is in court, charged with a crime, or that he is legally represented.

Judges and juries trying cases must ignore outside influences. So important is the principle that any defendant is innocent until proven guilty that the criminal courts impose penalties for breaching the principle in any way. In an English court, the prosecution cannot introduce a defendant’s previous convictions into the proceedings, unless he presents himself as being of previous good character. Juries must decide the case on the facts before them, in the present case only. Judges always instruct juries at the beginning of a criminal case, and remind them during the case, that they must not discuss the case, read newspaper reports or other information about the case that might influence their judgment. Recently, an English jury member, researched a defendant on the internet, and finding he had a previous conviction, told her fellow jurors, who properly informed the judge. The judge stopped the trial immediately. The errant juror was subsequently charged, tried for contempt of court, and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Newspapers too have breached the presumption of innocence principle. A person remains innocent until proven guilty in a court. Persons helping police with their enquiries, arrested and charged remain innocent until the prosecution proves its case in court. Newspaper witch-hunts against such people prejudice any criminal proceedings, which may result, and English courts view them seriously. In a recent murder case, the police arrested Christopher Jeffries, but later released him without charge. During the time that Mr. Jeffries was in custody, British newspapers were full of stories relating to his arrest. Two tabloid newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mirror, ran three pieces, which broke the Contempt of Court Act. The Attorney General brought an action against the newspapers for contempt of court. The court found that the three stories breached the act and that they risked prejudicing the future trial of the real killer and fined the two newspapers heavily. In the ruling in the case, the court stated that it was sending a warning to the press. Mr. Jeffries, an innocent man, sued eight newspapers for libel and received damages.

While the justice system usually upholds the presumption of innocence very carefully, there are some circumstances, where the principle does not apply, in English law. Where normally the prosecution must prove all elements of its case, including intention, in a drunken driving case, the prosecution must only prove that the defendant was drunk and sitting in his car. The defendant must prove that he did not intend to drive the vehicle, while drunk. Arguably, receiving a speeding ticket presumes guilt. Drivers receiving a speeding ticket must prove their innocence, by writing to the court and presenting reasons for their innocence. This turns the presumption of innocence on its head. 

The presumption of innocence in a court case is the tenet of English law, which states that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This applies in almost all criminal matters. The criminal justice system makes great efforts to uphold this presumption and punishes those who transgress against the principle, in any way, to ensure that defendants receive a fair trial.