Standard of Proof in Criminal Cases

 Standard of Proof in Criminal Cases
In criminal cases, the legal burden of proof is always on the prosecution. The standard of proof required for the discharge of that burden is that the prosecution has to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. This standard is imposed by section 138(1) of the Old Evidence Act, now section 135(1) of the Evidence Act, 2011 which provides that if the commission of a crime by a party to any proceeding is directly in issue in any proceeding civil or criminal, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
The requirement that the guilt of the accused has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt is imported from the English Common law and has been re-affirmed by the House of Lords in such cases as Woolmington v DPP (1953) AC 462 and Macini v DPP (1942) AC 1 and the Privy Council on appeal in the Nigerian case of R v Lawrence (1932) 11 NLR 7.
The judiciary has not been able to give an explanation of what is beyond reasonable doubt. And this has been a source of conflicting and confusing decisions leading to a lot of appeal. But certainly it does not mean proof beyond all doubt. In Miller v Minister of Pensions (1947) 2 ALL ER 372, Lord Denning, on the nature of proof beyond reasonable doubt, said that;
It need not reach certainty, but it must carry a high degree of probability. Proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond the shadow of doubt. The law would fail to protect the community if it admitted fanciful possibilities to deflate the cause of justice. If the evidence is strong against a man as to leave only a remote possibility, in his favour, which can be dismissal with the sentence – of course, it is possible but not in the least probable –the case is proved beyond reasonable doubt but nothing short of this will suffice.
Again, the standard of proof required before a verdict of guilty will be reached is that the judge should be so satisfied so that he feels sure of the guilt of the accused. As Oputa JSC put it in Bakare v State (1987) 1 NWLR 579;
Proof beyond reasonable doubt stems out of the competing [sic] presumption of innocence; inherent in our adversary system of criminal justice. To displace the presumption, the evidence of the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt, not beyond the shadow of doubt that the person accused is guilty of the offence charged. Absolute certainty is impossible in any human adventure including administration of criminal justice. Proof beyond reasonable doubt means what it says. It does not admit of plausible and fanciful possibilities but it does admit of a high degree of cogency consistent with an equally high degree of probabilities.
Thus, where the totality of the evidence in a criminal trial is equivocal, in the sense that it is consistent with both the guilt and innocence of the accused, a verdict of acquittal should be recorded in his favour. If on the whole of the evidence, the court is left in a state of doubt, the prosecution would have failed to discharge the onus of proof which the law lay upon it and the prisoner is therefore entitled to an acquittal.
Even where no evidence is offered by the accused in his defence, the prosecution still has to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. In order for the prosecution to achieve this standard of proof, it is not bound to call all available witnesses; it suffices if sufficient evidence is adduced to prove the ingredients of the offence.
All in all, in some instances, the Evidence Act or any other statute may cast the burden of proving particular facts on the defendant. In some of these cases, the burden is not as heavy as that placed on the prosecution. It is the same as in civil cases; that is on balance of probability or preponderance of evidence. However, there are certain cases where the statute or law would require that the standard of proof should be as high as in criminal cases; that is beyond reasonable doubt.
For instance if in a suit or civil action any of the parties either the plaintiff or the defendant in his pleadings makes an allegation of crime, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. For example, if in a case of libel, the defendant is alleged to have made criminal assertions against the plaintiff and in his defence he pleads justification, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt or if in matrimonial causes, there is allegation of rape, sodomy or bestiality, that aspect must be proofed beyond reasonable doubt.

The case of Ikoku v Oli (1962) 1 All NLR 194, where the Federal Supreme Court held that subsection (1) of section 138 of the old Evidence Act (now section 135(1) of the Evidence Act, 2011) only applies where there is a specific allegation of a crime in the pleadings, so that the commission of a crime can properly be said to be basis or foundation of the claim or defence, as the case may be, very instructive.

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