UNDERSTANDING REASONABILITY OF “REASONABLE DOUBT”

INTRODUCTION

Indian Criminal Jurisprudence relies heavily on Common Law. As per common law, there are three cardinal principles of Criminal Jurisprudence-

1. Presumption of Innocence of the accused

2. Prosecution should prove guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt and

3. The burden of proof on prosecution never shifts.


As far as the level of proof is concerned, it is an accepted principle asserted through various judgments that the prosecution has to prove the guilt of the accused beyond ‘reasonable doubt’. In other words, if there is even the slightest doubt in the mind of the judge, the accused can get acquitted. This is because of the first principle discussed above i.e., Accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. However, this doubt has to be ‘reasonable’. This was established after the Supreme court in the case of Yogesh Singh v. Mahabeer Singh1 made an observation that- Burden of proof of the Prosecution is to establish its case beyond all reasonable doubts and not ALL doubts. However, the main question lies in the fact that the word ‘Reasonable’ is not defined in statutes.



THE MYSTERY OF ‘REASONABLE DOUBT’

The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 which is the legislation which lays down standards and rules of Proof of guilt and Burden of proof does not define the word ‘Reasonable’. As a result, the interpretation of ‘reasonable’ is left at the discretion of the court. This opens a whole new level of questions which can lead to potential unpredictability as far as the conviction of the accused is concerned. Of course, each case has its own facts and circumstances. But what is more concerning is that this directly points to the psychology, ethics, rationality etc. of the Judge/ bench adjudicating the matter. What is reasonable for one, may not be reasonable for the other. There is no fixed standard. It is possible that two similar cases with similar facts and circumstances may run parallelly before two different judges and have different outcomes solely because both the judges have different degrees of reasonability.

Under these circumstances following questions are raised-

Is there any way for the prosecution to know whether it has been able to prove its point beyond such ‘reasonable’ doubt?

What is the benchmark which has to be crossed in proving facts/evidence to guarantee conviction?


The third cardinal principle mentioned above works brilliantly here. The Supreme court of India, in the case of Abdulla Mohammed v. The State2, explained the difference between Burden and Onus of proof. 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 shifting of proof is a continuous process in evaluation of evidence. So basically, the burden lies on the Prosecution but the accused is called upon to prove his case if he claims/ takes a defense that the 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 favour and he need not prove his stand beyond reasonable doubt. So, it is clear that standards of proof are different for both sides in a criminal case.

Due to this, there is a mystery created around the words ‘Reasonable doubt’ which gives off an impression that, the prosecution has to constantly be on its toes to ensure that the evidence presented against the accused has surpassed the degree of reasonability of that particular judge who is adjudicating the case but the prosecution has no way of knowing whether such degree of reasonability is surpassed or not.

However, the reality is quite different from this view.



LEGISLATIVE PROVISIONS

It is true that the Evidence Act does not define the terms ‘Reasonable’ or ‘reasonable doubt’. But what it does define are the following terms- ‘Proved’, ‘Disproved’ and ‘Not Proved’.

Section 3 of the Evidence Act defines Proved as- “A fact is said to be proved when, after considering the matters before it, the Court; either believes it to exist, or considers its existence so probable that a prudent man ought, under the circumstances of the particular case, to act upon the supposition that it exists.”

Disproved as- “A fact is said to be disproved when, after considering the matters before it, the Court either believes that it does not exist, or considers its non-existence so probable that a prudent man ought, under the circumstances of the particular case, to act upon the supposition that it does not exist.”

Whereas, facts which neither form part of ‘Proved’ or ‘Disproved’ become ‘Not Proved’.

In other words- a fact is considered as ‘Proved’ when there is an absolute certainty of its existence. It is considered as ‘Disproved’ when there is an absolute certainty of its non-existence.


The statute does not set a standard of proof required for either Civil or Criminal cases differently. It is the Judicial precedents that have set the standards of proof. However, at least theoretically, no precedent can outreach the Statute. Hence, though it is a common knowledge that the criminal cases have to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, what it really means is- in criminal cases, there has to be absolute certainty about the guilt of the accused before awarding punishments because, liberty of the accused is at stake, unlike civil cases where the absolute liberty of the person is not threatened.


JUDICIAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE WORD ‘REASONABLE DOUBT’- A STUDY OF CRIMINAL JURISPRUDENCE

A judge decides the matter only on the touchstone of probability. The judge is neither an eyewitness nor he is connected to the case in any way. Hence, the litmus test for deciding the fact as ‘proved’, ‘disproved’, or ‘not proved’ is the degree of probability.


Considering the liberty of the accused is at stake here, the court always insists for a higher degree of proof to be absolutely sure that an innocent person is not punished. This has been insisted by Lord Denning in the case of Bater v. Bater3. He enunciated that different standards for different types of cases are “more of a matter of words”. The only underlying principle is- higher degree of proof is required for more serious matters. Criminal matters are more serious in nature as compared to Civil matters due to what is at stake or what the accused will potentially lose. In short, the gravity of the matter is decided based on what the consequences will be and not based on whether the matter is civil in nature or criminal in nature. To corroborate this, Lord Denning gave an example of Negligence v. Fraud. According to him, even though both, negligence as well as fraud, can be civil matters, in a case of fraud, the court will ask for a higher degree of proof than in a case of negligence. Hence, rather than going for actual words of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, the thing to be focused on is the degree of proof required which is of higher degree in the case of criminal cases.


As mentioned earlier, there are two points of absolute certainty about existence or non-existence of a particular fact. But since, Judge is not directly involved in the case in any way, these points are never achieved and the satisfaction of the court lies in between these two extreme points. As a result, the doubt always lingers because absolute certainty, for all practical purposes, is a myth or a fiction. This can be understood from the decision of Ashok Debbarama v. State of Tripura4, where the Supreme court elaborated on the concept of ‘Residual Doubt’ which refers to the doubt that lingers in the minds of jurors who are convinced about accused’s guilt but are not absolutely certain about it. This kind of doubt is generally considered while awarding the highest punishment i.e., Death sentence to the accused.

However, the courts insist that, case has to be proved only beyond ‘reasonable’ doubts and not all doubts for securing conviction of the accused5. Supreme court in the case of Krishnan & Anr. v. State6 had held that doubt would be reasonable if it is free from any zest of abstract speculation or overly emotional response because the Law has no favorites other than The Truth. It was also said that, ‘reasonable doubt’ is based on reason and common sense and is not merely a possible or imaginary doubt.


PRINCIPLE OF REASONABILITY

Now that it is clear that the Judiciary bases ‘reasonable doubt’ on the parameters of ‘common sense’ and ‘reason’, we have to understand whose common sense of reason is applied here as both these terms are subjective in nature. Section 3 of Evidence Act clearly mentions the term ‘Prudent man’. Thus, it is clear that the scale or standard of reasonability of a ‘Prudent Man’ is applied here.

However, there is an inherent philosophical difficulty in defining ‘Reasonability’. But, an attempt is made to equate it with the conduct of a ‘reasonable’ or ‘prudent’ person. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, in his books ‘The critique of practical reason’ explains the concept of ‘reason’. He reasons that ‘reason’ must give a way to sensibility. This sensibility armed with logic and natural talent could be argued as characteristics of a ‘prudent’ man that he might employ for understanding standard of proof. Thus, a judge is expected to possess and employ these characteristics to determine whether the proof is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ or not.


CONCLUSION

From above, it is clear that a sincere effort has been made by Judiciary, from time to time, to provide as much clarity on the topic of ‘reasonable doubt’. But, the reality lies in the fact that nothing and no precedent can go beyond the statute. Rather than going into the reasonability of the expression ‘reasonable doubt’, the standard that should be kept in mind is- going as near to that point of certainty about the existence of fact as possible because, the only thing matters that while proving the guilt of the accused is the higher degree of proof than one would expect in other cases.


Footnotes

1. (2017) 11 SCC 195

2. 1980 SCR (1) 604

3. (1950) 2 All ER 458

4. (2014) 4 SCC 747

5. Yogesh Singh v. Mahabeer Singh, (2017) 11 SCC 195

6. (2003) 7 SCC 56


REFERENCES

Case laws-

1. Yogesh Singh v. Mahabeer Singh, (2017) 11 SCC 195

2. Abdulla Mohammed Pagarkar v. State (Union Territory of Goa, Daman and Diu), 1980 SCR (1) 604

3. Bater v. Bater, (1950) 2 All ER 458

4. Ashok Debbarma v. State of Tripura, (2014) 4 SCC 747

5. Krishnan & Anr. V. State, (2003) 7 SCC 56


Legislations-

1. The Indian Evidence Act, 1872


Articles/ Blogs/ Books-

1. Immanuel Kant, “The critique of Practical reason” (1788) (Ebook hosted on gutenberg.org published on August 7, 2002) <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5683/5683-h/5683-h.htm> accessed on 08 July 2022

2. M. Piravi Perumal, “beyond Reasonable Doubt” (Lawyersclubindia,13 March 2009), < https://www.lawyersclubindia.com/articles/BEYOND-REASONABLE-DOUBT-880.asp#comments> accessed 08 July 2022

“Three principles of Criminal Jurisprudence”, (Articlesonlaw, 25 April 2015), < https://articlesonlaw.in/three-principles-of-criminal-jurisprudence/> accessed 06 July 2022



This article is written by Utkarsha Deshpande of Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai.

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