Lifchus was a stockbroker who was accused of fraud and theft. He was convicted of one and acquitted of the other. He appealed on the basis that the judge did not properly explain the burden of proof to the jury. He said that "beyond a reasonable doubt" is simply an everyday idea and that everyone understands it - a "plain language" approach. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal ordering a new trial, which the Crown appealed.
- How should a judge charge a jury on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt”?
Cory, writing for the majority, agrees that this was not the correct way to describe "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a jury, because it is not simply the plain understanding of it. He gives a list of things to include in a charge:
- the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is inextricably intertwined with that principle fundamental to all criminal trials, the presumption of innocence;
- the burden of proof rests on the prosecution throughout the trial and never shifts to the accused;
- a reasonable doubt is not a doubt based upon sympathy or prejudice, rather, it is based upon reason and common sense;
- it is logically connected to the evidence or absence of evidence;
- it does not involve proof to an absolute certainty; it is not proof beyond any doubt nor is it an imaginary or frivolous doubt; and
- more is required than proof that the accused is probably guilty -- a jury which concludes only that the accused is probably guilty must acquit;
and a list of things not to include:
- describing the term as an ordinary expression which has no special meaning in the criminal law context;
- inviting jurors to apply to the task before them the same standard of proof that they apply to important, or even the most important, decisions in their own lives;
- equating proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" to proof "to a moral certainty;
- qualifying the word "doubt" with adjectives other than "reasonable", such as "serious", "substantial" or "haunting", which may mislead the jury; and
- instructing jurors that they may convict if they are "sure" that the accused is guilty, before providing them with a proper definition as to the meaning of the words "beyond a reasonable doubt".
Cory provides a suggested charge at para 39 which has subsequently been adopted by all trial jurors:
The accused enters these proceedings presumed to be innocent. That presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time as the Crown has on the evidence put before you satisfied you beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.
What does the expression “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?
The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” has been used for a very long time and is a part of our history and traditions of justice. It is so engrained in our criminal law that some think it needs no explanation, yet something must be said regarding its meaning.
A reasonable doubt is not an imaginary or frivolous doubt. It must not be based upon sympathy or prejudice. Rather, it is based on reason and common sense. It is logically derived from the evidence or absence of evidence.
Even if you believe the accused is probably guilty or likely guilty, that is not sufficient. In those circumstances you must give the benefit of the doubt to the accused and acquit because the Crown has failed to satisfy you of the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.
On the other hand you must remember that it is virtually impossible to prove anything to an absolute certainty and the Crown is not required to do so. Such a standard of proof is impossibly high.
In short if, based upon the evidence before the court, you are sure that the accused committed the offence you should convict since this demonstrates that you are satisfied of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
He says that other than the part in question, the trial judge's charge to the jury was clear; however, the part in question was enough to mislead the jury. The Crown tries to argue that s.686(b)(iii) applies, however this is rejected as the Court says that you cannot say that the jury would have come to the same conclusion with the correct instruction.
- When defining important criminal terms such as "beyond a reasonable doubt" the judge must not simply use a plain language definition; they must include descriptions of the important underlying concepts of criminal law that must be considered, and the specific degree that must be proven to be acceptable.
- If a different charge is used, a verdict should only be overturned to order a new trial if there is a reasonable likelihood that the charge led the jury to misapprehend the standard of proof.