RMB Lawyers Managing Partner CRAIG OSBORNE outlines the importance of the presumption of innocence in our legal system:
The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. In countries like Australia this “presumption” is a legal right of someone accused of a criminal offence. It is also an international human right under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The reasons are simple. It is easy to make an allegation against someone, while people also witness and experience events in different ways.
Matters get more complicated when there are no witnesses other than the person who is making the allegation and the accused. It is very dangerous to jump to conclusions.
Police and prosecuting authorities are often met with different versions of the event, and unfortunately, people also lie.
For all of these reasons and more, the presumption of innocence means that when you go before a Court in Australia charged with a criminal offence you are seen as innocent until proven otherwise.
The Prosecutor (the Government representative) has what is called the onus of proof to prove that a person is guilty beyond “a reasonable doubt”, and has reasonable resources to compile evidence to make the case as strong as possible.
Accused persons have the right to be represented by lawyers who can test the Prosecution’s evidence by cross examination and legal argument.
The presumption of innocence is a golden thread running through criminal law and is crucial to the operation of a fair trial and subsequently a fair outcome.
The media can play a big role with respect to allegations of the commission of criminal offences and a presumption of innocence.
In my view the media’s role is to simply report that someone has been charged, that they are innocent until proven otherwise and then report of the outcome of the criminal hearing or trial.
Unfortunately, extensive media coverage of criminal cases on television, newspaper, social media and the commentary that goes with it can be unnecessarily sensational and very prejudicial to an accused person, particularly if that accused person is famous.
The criminal justice system is a very delicate ecosystem that should not be trampled on by anyone external to the system.
Unfair media coverage of criminal charges at the time of charge and in the lead up to a jury hearing tears at the heart of the fundamental aspects of the criminal justice system including undermining the presumption of innocence.