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Criminal jurisprudence and the presumption of innocence

Filed under: People and society by Hari
Posted on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 at 20:38 IST (last updated: Thu, Sep 3, 2009 @ 20:44 IST)

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I was recently reading Constitutional Law, which is a part of my Law course syllabus and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the application of the principle of "right to life and liberty" with respect to the presumption of innocence of accused persons in criminal cases. The apparatus and administration of Criminal Law is a very powerful tool in the hands of the State against individual members of society and can be used to deprive them of liberty or life, two of the most important fundamental rights of any human being.

JudgeIt's a very simple concept - but one that can be easily forgotten in a highly emotional and controversial case. Nevertheless almost every system of Law in democratic States guarantees the protection of the right of life and liberty to every individual and such a fundamental right must absolutely not be taken away without due process of law. And this is the basis of the "innocent until proven guilty" principle of criminal jurisprudence. Almost every system of law adheres to this in theory, but the application and measure of proof required varies and sometimes this general rule has special exceptions.

Why do we need this safeguard? Some will argue that in many cases, it might be impossible to prove a case in Law, however loudly the facts might speak for themselves. Isn't it equally unjust that a plainly guilty man be set free because of lack of evidence? That is absolutely true, but perfect justice has never existed in human administered law. The best answer is that when it comes to a choice of evils, it's better that on occasion the injustice that some guilty people be allowed to go free is preferred in order to prevent the injustice of an innocent person being deprived of liberty, reputation and practically life where imprisonment is for a number of years.

I believe that it's increasingly important to bear this in mind because trial by media (both the mainstream and online media) has become increasingly common these days especially in high-profile cases. An accused is assumed to be guilty and discussed as a criminal even before a verdict from a competent court. It's easy for lay people (and even some lawyers) to be swayed by strong public opinion which replaces fact with emotion and solid evidence with unreliable hearsay. The reason that any system of Law establishes procedures of investigation and laws of evidence is to prevent arbitrary application of justice and to give every accused the opportunity to refute the charges against him/her. Audi alteram partem (hear the other side) is inherent in administration of justice. It would be absurd to argue that every accused person must be guilty, otherwise he/she wouldn't be in the dock. Even in the fairest and most transparent systems of law, innocent people can and do get entangled in criminal cases.

If this principle is abandoned on any account, then there is a real danger that any system of criminal law will degenerate into a farce and criminal trials become little more than a formality as in a police state. It is important that the law, especially criminal law should be consistent and fair even at the cost of being slightly inefficient.

It might appear that I am a staunch human rights advocate after reading this, but actually this is nothing more than a pragmatic approach to a civilized democratic society. I think it's very important that people should be aware of their rights and be prepared to stand up for them, unemotionally and rationally. Knowledge is power.

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3 comment(s)

  1. I recently had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Supreme Court hear oral arguments on a case involving a similar issue; you may want to read about it. The case, Jones v. Borchardt, deals with whether an offender can be charged a per diem for time spent in jail before he was convicted of a crime. The plaintiff&#039;s argument is that since he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the fees are not reasonable or supported by Minnesota statute §641.12.

    Comment by Dan (visitor) on Mon, Sep 21, 2009 @ 06:39 IST #
  2. Dan, yes, I cannot imagine how an under-trial accused can be charged rent for his forcible stay in prison before conviction. That case sounds interesting.

    My point is that even after conviction, a prisoner cannot be charged any rent because his stay in prison is involuntary and forcible however legal it might be. The State must bear the cost of housing prisoners.

    I also don't think that at any point the State can abdicate its responsibility when it comes to judicial functions and hand over the responsibility to private parties either.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Mon, Sep 21, 2009 @ 08:28 IST #
  3. Excellent article and thank you for sharing, Hari! Looks like you'll turn out to be a very good lawyer.

    Comment by Van Nuys (visitor) on Thu, Jan 6, 2011 @ 08:10 IST #

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