The Chaos of Reasonable Doubt

AuthorGlen Rogers
PositionLLB (Dubl)
© 2014 Glen Rogers and Dublin University Law Society
The presumption of innocence has been celebrated as the cornerstone of
our criminal law, famously described by Viscount Sankey as the “golden
1 This presumption operates much the same as most others by
removing the burden to prove that which is already presumed, and is
alleged to be the foundation of the most fundamental of all evidentiary
requirements: that the prosecution in a criminal trial must prove the
defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt, and that, subject to certain
exceptions, such as pleading the defense of insanity, there is no burden
whatsoever on the defendant to prove his or her innocence.2 We shall see
later that the presumption of innocence is not the true origin of the
reasonable doubt standard.
In recent decades perhaps owing to the heightened influence and
availability of mass media and the ubiquity of film, televisual and literary
productions on the subject the term ‘reasonable doubt’ has pervaded the
modern vernacular to such an extent that it is a phrase scarcely novel to the
man on the street. Despite this ubiquity, the rule remains infamously
difficult to define, and is capable of creating confusion and bewilderment
for jurors who are charged with determining its existence or non-existence
in criminal trials.3
It is clear that the sole responsibility of determining whether a
defendant’s guilt has been established beyond any reasonable doubt in
most criminal trials on indictment lies with the jury in their competence as
* LLB (Dubl). The author would like to thank Seán Finan for his editorial counsel
and insightful additions. Thanks also to Séamus Beirne BA (Mod), who initially deliberated
on Pryce with me and to Marc Tiernan. Last and foremost, to David Byrne LLB (Dubl) read
this article first. All errors remain the author’s own.
1 Woolmington v DPP [1935]AC 462, at 481 [hereinafter Woolmington].
3 As much is evident from recent incidents such as the collapse of the Vicky Pryce trial in
February 2013 in England. See R v Vasiliki Pryce and Christopher Huhne 11 March 2013
(Southwark Crown Court).
2014] The Chaos of Reasonable Doubt 183
4 The delegation of fact-finding to the jury in the criminal
process is a long-standing and history-laden feature of our justice system.
This venerability compounds the systemic problems of reasonable doubt
and it will be explored in some depth throughout this article.
This article aims to elucidate the problems of reasonable doubt and
the attending (largely interpretive) problems of the modern jury by
examining its origins. It also looks to the future and proposed development
of this standard. At the outset, it is helpful to begin with a brief
examination of the trial of Vicky Pryce5 [hereinafter Pryce] as a case study
and grounding with which to direct our focus. Subsequently, the article
will explore the de facto position of, and how judges instruct on,
reasonable doubt. Finally, the origins of the standard will be examined and
it will be argued that they have not been properly explored in the core
academic literature on the subject, an oversight that is the source of
potential further problems facing the reasonable doubt standard.
I. The Pryce Problem
The difficulty faced by juries grappling with the standard of reasonable
doubt came sharply into focus with the collapse of the first trial of Vicky
Pryce on a charge of perverting the course of justice.6 The facts of the case
are immaterial for our present purposes. The jury in the trial was
discharged after the trial judge, Sweeney J, found them to have suffered
from “absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding.”7 The jury had
supposedly erred in returning from deliberation to ask the judge a series of
questions, which included a request to define reasonable doubt. Sweeney
J’s conspicuously short reply was “a reasonable doubt is a doubt which is
reasonable. These are ordinary English words that the law does not allow
me to help you with beyond the written directions that I have already
4 There are obvious exceptions across the common law world, eg in Ireland, the Special
Criminal Court sits in a three-judge division to hear treason and terrorism trials without a
jury. In any case, for our present purposes we are necessarily concerned exclusively with jury
5 R v Vasiliki Pryce and Christopher Huhne 11 March 2013 (Southwark Crown Court).
6 Ms Pryce was subsequently found guilty by a second jury’s unanimous verdict and
sentenced to a prison term of eight months.
7 Caroline Davies, Vicky Pryce faces retrial after jury ‘fails to grasp basics’
(visited 31 January

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