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Presumption of innocence

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Title: Presumption of innocence  
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Subject: Right to a fair trial, Not proven, Perp walk, Civil forfeiture in the United States, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Collection: Criminal Procedure, Doubt, Human Rights, Legal Doctrines and Principles
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Presumption of innocence

The presumption of innocence, sometimes referred to by the Latin expression Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), is the principle that one is considered innocent unless proven guilty. In many nations, presumption of innocence is a legal Rights of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is also regarded as an international human right under the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11. The burden of proof is thus on the prosecution, which has to collect and present enough compelling evidence to convince the trier of fact, who is restrained and ordered by law to consider only actual evidence and testimony that is legally admissible, and in most cases lawfully obtained, that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If reasonable doubt remains, the accused is to be acquitted. Under Justinian Codes and English Common law, the accused is presumed innocent in criminal proceedings, and in civil proceedings (like breach of contract) both sides must issue proof. Under Anglo-American Common Law, the accused is always presumed innocent in all types of proceedings; proof is always the burden of the accuser. Under Islamic Law, a tradition had not been solidified but doubtful evidence should be rejected upon moral principles.


  • History 1
    • Roman law 1.1
    • Islamic law 1.2
  • Middle Ages in Europe 2
    • Common law 2.1
    • Civil law 2.2
  • Meaning 3
  • The fundamental right 4
  • Modern practices 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Roman law

The sixth century Digest of Justinian (22.3.2) provides, as a general rule of evidence: Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat[1]—"Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies".[2] It is there attributed to the second and third century jurist Paul.

Islamic law

Similar to that of Roman Law, Islamic law also holds the principle that the onus of proof is on the accusor or claimant based on a hadith documented by Imam Nawawi.[3] 'Suspicion' is also highly condemned, this also from a hadith documented by Imam Nawawi[4] as well as Imam Bukhari [5] and Imam Muslim.[6]

After the time of Muhammad, the fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Thalib has also been cited to say 'Avert the prescribed punishment by rejecting doubtful evidence.' [7] Under western legal systems, like English and Anglo-American Common Law, unlike in Islamic law, this is always left to the Trier of Fact, which was either a high lord (like the King), a judge, or a jury. In Islam this is not established. Often a religious leader or other Elder would sit as Trier of Fact. Other time Trier of Fact can be the prosecutor and executioner if Family Honor is questioned.

Middle Ages in Europe

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fell back on a Germanic system that presumed guilt. The accused could prove his innocence by having, for example, twelve people swear that he could not have done what he was accused of. This tended to favor the nobility over the lower classes.[8]

Common law

In sources from common law jurisdictions, the expression appears in an extended version, in its original form and then in a shortened form (and in each case the translation provided varies). As extended, it is: Ei incumbit probatio, qui dicit, non qui negat; cum per rerum naturam factum negantis probatio nulla sit—"The proof lies upon him who affirms, not upon him who denies; since, by the nature of things, he who denies a fact cannot produce any proof."[9] As found in its original form, it is (as above): Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat—"The proof lies upon the one who affirms, not the one who denies." [10][11] Then, shortened from the original, it is: Ei incumbit probatio qui—"the onus of proving a fact rests upon the man who".[12]

Civil law

The maxim or its equivalent has been adopted by many civil law systems, including Brazil,[13] France,[14] Italy,[15][16] Philippines,[17] Poland,[18] Romania[19] and Spain.[20]


"Presumption of innocence" serves to emphasize that the prosecution has the obligation to prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt (or some other level of proof depending on the criminal justice system) and that the accused bears no burden of proof.[21] This is often expressed in the phrase innocent until proven guilty, coined by the English lawyer Sir William Garrow (1760–1840).[22] Garrow insisted that accusers be robustly tested in court. An objective observer in the position of the juror must reasonably conclude that the defendant almost certainly committed the crime.[23]

The presumption of innocence is in fact a legal instrument created by the French cardinal and jurist Jean Lemoine to favor the accused based on the legal inference that most people are not criminals.[24] It is literally considered favorable evidence for the accused that automatically attaches at trial.[25] It requires that the trier of fact, be it a juror or judge, begin with the presumption that the state is unable to support its assertion.[24] To ensure this legal protection is maintained a set of three related rules govern the procedure of criminal trials. The presumption means:[21]

  1. With respect to the critical facts of the case—whether the crime charged was committed and whether the defendant was the person who committed the crime—the state has the entire burden of proof.
  2. With respect to the critical facts of the case, the defendant does not have any burden of proof whatsoever. The defendant does not have to testify, call witnesses or present any other evidence, and if the defendant elects not to testify or present evidence, this decision cannot be used against them.
  3. The jury or judge is not to draw any negative inferences from the fact the defendant has been charged with a crime and is present in court and represented by an attorney. They must decide the case solely on evidence presented during the trial.
This duty on the prosecution was famously referred to as the “golden thread” in the criminal law by Lord Sankey LC in Woolmington v DPP [1935] AC 462:

The fundamental right

This right is so important in modern democracies, constitutional monarchies and republics that many have explicitly included it in their legal codes and constitutions:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.".
  • In the Colombian constitution, Title II, Chapter 1, Article 29 states that "Every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law".
  • In France, article 9 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 1789, which has force as constitutional law, begins: "Any man being presumed innocent until he has been declared guilty ...". The Code of Criminal Procedure states in its preliminary article that "any person suspected or prosecuted is presumed innocent for as long as their guilt has not been established"[14] and the jurors' oath repeats this assertion (article 304).[26]
  • In Italy, the second paragraph of Article 27 of the Constitution states: "A defendant shall be considered not guilty until a final sentence has been passed."[27]
  • The Constitution of the Philippines, in article III, section 14, states, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved".[28]
  • In Romania, article 23 of the Constitution states that "any person shall be presumed innocent until found guilty by a final decision of the court."
  • The Constitution of Russia, in article 49, states that "Everyone charged with a crime shall be considered not guilty until his or her guilt has been proven in conformity with the federal law and has been established by the valid sentence of a court of law". It also states that "The defendant shall not be obliged to prove his or her innocence" and "Any reasonable doubt shall be interpreted in favor of the defendant".
  • In the South African Constitution, section 35(3)(h) of the Bill of Rights states: "Every accused person has a right to a fair trial, which includes the right to be presumed innocent, to remain silent, and not to testify during the proceedings."

Modern practices

Article 48 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union affirms the right to the presumption of innocence

Some legal systems have employed de jure presumptions of guilt, such as at an order to show cause criminal proceeding. Otherwise, accusations of presumption of guilt generally do not imply an actual legal presumption of guilt, but rather denounce failures to ensure that suspects are treated well and are offered good defence conditions. Typical infringements could include:

  • Suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have been detained for long periods while inquiries proceed. Such long imprisonment constitutes, in practice, a hardship and a punishment for the suspect, even though they have not been sentenced. (See speedy trial)
  • Courts may prefer the testimonies of persons of certain class, status, ethnicity, sex, or economic or political standing over those of others, regardless of actual circumstances.
  • Until relatively recently, it was common for the justice system to have suspects tortured to extract confessions from them, since circumstantial evidence was rarely analyzed or admitted in those times. Although this practice is generally and has generally been disallowed in the more recent past, except during 20th-century fascist and Soviet governments, there have been attempts to introduce evidence obtained from suspects tortured elsewhere.
  • In the United Kingdom changes have been made affecting this principle. Defendants' previous convictions may in certain circumstances be revealed to juries. Although the suspect is not compelled to answer questions after formal arrest, failure to give information may now be prejudicial at trial. Statute law also exists which provides for criminal penalties for failing to decrypt data on request from the Police. If the suspect is unwilling to do so, it is an offence.[29] Citizens can therefore be convicted and imprisoned without any evidence that the encrypted material was unlawful. Furthermore, in sexual offence cases such as rape, where the sexual act has already been proved beyond reasonable doubt, there are a limited number of circumstances where the defendant has an obligation to adduce evidence that the complainant consented to the sexual act, or that the defendant reasonably believed that the complainant was consenting. These circumstances include, for example, where the complainant was unconscious, unlawfully detained, or subjected to violence.[30]
  • Scottish law provides for a third verdict: "not proven."
  • In some jurisdictions, state-funded defences may not match the quality of state-funded prosecutions. Further, where a defendant funds his or her own defence, the cost is borne solely by the individual, whereas the burden of funding a prosecution is collectively borne by the state. Individual defence resources in finances, information, equipment, expertise, research, and personnel may not match the resources of a government, especially if the defendant is imprisoned.

Guaranteeing the presumption of innocence extends beyond the judicial system. For instance, in many countries journalistic codes of ethics state that journalists should refrain from referring to suspects as though their guilt is certain. For example, they use "suspect" or "defendant" when referring to the suspect, and use "alleged" when referring to the criminal activity that the suspect is accused of.

More subtly, publishing of the prosecution's case without proper defence argumentation may in practice constitute presumption of guilt. Publishing a roster of arrested suspects may constitute undeserved punishment as well, since in practice it damages the reputation of innocent suspects. Private groups fighting certain abuses may also apply similar tactics, such as publishing the real name, address, and phone number of suspects, or even contacting the suspects' employer, friends and neighbors.

Modern practices aimed at curing social ills may run against presumption of innocence. Some civil rights organizations, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association consider pre-employment drug testing, while legal, as violating this principle, as potential employees are presumed to be users of illegal drugs, and must prove themselves innocent through the test.[31] Similarly, critics argue that prevailing policies of zero tolerance toward sexual harassment or racial discrimination show a strong presumption of guilt. These dispositions were meant to ease the burden of proof on the victim, since in practice harassment or discrimination practices are hard to prove.

Civil rights activists note that the well-meaning practices so adopted may have a deleterious effect on justice being served. An example is the use of a screen in sexual assault cases, which is set up to prevent the complainant from being distressed at the sight of the accused. Where a victim was in fact victimized by the accused, this may be argued to serve the principles of therapeutic justice.[32]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Imam Nawawi. 1977. An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith (Second Edition English Translation by Ezzedin Ibrahim). Damascus: Holy Koran Pub. House, Hadith No. 33
  4. ^ Riyaadus Shaaliheen, Hadith No. 1573
  5. ^ Sahih Al-Bukhari (English Version), Vol. 8, Book 73, Hadith 90
  6. ^ Sahih Muslim (English Version), Book 32, Hadith 6214
  7. ^ Imam ibn Hajar's Bulugh al-Maram (English Version), Book 10, Hadith 1260
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^
  10. ^ Bouvier's Maxims (1856), citing Roman law and then various treatises, q.v.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Decree-Law 3689|date=August 2012
  14. ^ a b Code de procédure pénale, article préliminaire (French)
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ People vs. Masalihit, decision of the Supreme Court of The Philippines
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b pp. 133–34.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b Words and Phrases 1914, p. 1168
  25. ^ Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895) “the presumption of innocence is evidence in favor of the accused, introduced by the law in [their] behalf”
  26. ^ Code de procédure pénale, article 304 (French).
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^


External links

  • The Presumption of Innocence in the French and Anglo-American Legal Traditions
  • The History of Presumed Innocence
  • The effects of presuming innocence
  • magazine reports on the miscarriages of justice that occur when the presumption of innocence is not respected.Justice:Denied
  • , 156 U.S. 432; 15 S. Ct. 394Coffin v. United States
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