Principles of the Canadian Criminal Justice System

In this article, we would like to discuss the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system. There are a number of memorable statements regarding these principles, such as “innocent until proven guilty.” What we would like to do is give these statements meaning, and explain their practical outcomes.

There are four major principles which form the basis of Canadian criminal law.

1. There is an assumption of innocence (“innocent until proven guilty”). This approach is the cornerstone of criminal justice in most countries, and has a very practical outcome: the assumption that the accused is innocent means that said accused does not have to prove that he or she is innocent. Silence on the part of the accused cannot be interpreted as admission of guilt.

2. The burden of evidence is on the prosecution. This second principle flows from the first one. Since the accused does not have to prove that he or she is innocent, it is up to the prosecution to prove that the accused is guilty. In other words, while the prosecution has the right to accuse a person of a crime, the prosecution also has the “burden” of providing evidence of this guilt. There are only two situations in which the accused has the burden to prove something:

  • When the prosecution possesses evidence which is absolutely sufficient to show that the accused is guilty. In these situations, the defence may choose to begin actively collecting evidence to show that the accused is innocent.
  • When the prosecution makes an assumption that the defense would like to challengeFor example, the Criminal Code assumes that every individual who has committed a crime is sane. If the defence argues that the accused is “innocent by reason of insanity” (the accused was not sane and did not understand the meaning and consequences of his or her actions), then it is up to the defence to collect evidence and prove that the accused was not, in fact, of sound mind.

3. To be convicted, the accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is any “reasonable doubt” about the guilt of the accused, then he or she must not be convicted. This is a difficult concept for Judges and Juries to apply, largely because the evaluation of evidence, of “reasonableness,” and of doubt are all subjective. At the same time, it is not a rarity that a person is found innocent because reasonable doubt exists. The main criterion used when applying this principle is the answer to the question, “is the accused guilty?” If the answer is, “yes, beyond a reasonable doubt,” then the accused is convicted. If the answer is, “yes, most likely,” then he or she must be acquitted.

4. The accused has a right to a fair and open trial. What constitutes a “fair” trial is a lengthy topic of discussion. In short, however, a “fair trial” is, primarily, a trial where all the procedural rights of the accused are observed. This includes the right to full disclosure of all evidence the prosecution has against the accused, the right to defence and representation, and more. An “open” trial is a trial which anyone and everyone can attend. It is only in fairly rare cases that the Court makes a special order for closed proceedings, which are not open to the public. This is usually done to protect the interests of the victims or minors. 

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