(Listen to this article on the Sky Alpha Breakfast Show)
When a case goes to trial, the defendant (the person who is on trial) is presumed to be innocent. For a guilty verdict to be found, the prosecution must prove that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is guilty. This article explores why we have the presumption of innocence, and why it is important that it is upheld.
HAS THERE ALWAYS BEEN A PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE?
Historically, the presumption of innocence did not exist. Whilst there were trials, the defendant was often presumed guilty before the trial had even taken place. These trials were a mere formality; the fate of the defendant had often already been decided. The presumption of innocence, amongst other factors, has prevented the arbitrary detention of many citizens, as it provides a counter to the power of the state.
WHY IS THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE IMPORTANT?
The government is more powerful than the individuals over which it governs. In the past, this imbalance of power resulted in people being thrown into jail and punished for crimes which they did not commit. This was because the power of the state was unchecked. The presumption of innocence is part of a protective mechanism which ensures that citizens have a fair trial.
The presumption of innocence can therefore be seen as an element of a fair justice system. A fair justice system is one where the balancing of people’s freedoms is recognised. One rationale which underpins the presumption of innocence is that it is better that the guilty go free than the innocent are convicted. There is protection from arbitrary and abusive force from the government. The presumption of innocence means that a powerful state is prevented from arbitrarily finding a guilty verdict, as no guilt can be presumed until the charge has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
HOW IS THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE ENFORCED?
The United Nations have stated that public authorities should refrain from prejudging the outcome of a trial by making public statements affirming the guilt of the accused. The media should also avoid news coverage which undermines the presumption of innocence. Furthermore, defendants should normally not be shackled or confined in an enclosure during trials or otherwise presented to the court in a manner indicating that they may be dangerous criminals.
HOW DOES THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE AFFECT HUMAN RIGHTS?
The right to a fair trial is a very important human right. The presumption of innocence helps to secure this right as it avoids the arbitrary rule of the state. The doctrine of the presumption of innocence is absolutely central to a fair trial, and therefore it has a very large impact on the enforcement of human rights.