Criminal law is quite different from civil law where the people of both sides are not criminals, or not being tried for a criminal offence. Criminal lawyers will tell you that they deal with the offences of breaking laws and seek to find out if a person is guilty or not. If they are, they must be convicted and the judge must set a punishment for them.
There are four basic principles in criminal law –
- The presumption of innocence. A person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty. So even if they’ve been charged with the offence in question, it doesn’t mean they are guilty and they cannot be punished until the proof shows they are guilty. The judge, a magistrate or a jury must listen to all the evidence and decide whether the person is guilty or innocence. If there is reasonable doubt that they are guilty they must be acquitted of the offence.
- Burden of proof. This means that whoever is prosecuting the person must supply enough evidence to prove their guilt. Guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, which means the person on trial does not have to prove their innocence. That said, it is in the defendant’s best interests to carefully explain the reason why they are not guilty or to give an alibi or any other evidence that can help to prove their innocence.
- The right to remain silent. No person has to answer questions put by the police. However, if the police have found the person in the act of committing a crime or have reason to believe they did or are about to commit one, that person must give their name and address when asked by the police. If they don’t, or if they supply a false name or address then it is considered to be a punishable offence. Also, if a person is driving a vehicle or is asked about firearms, they must answer.
- Double jeopardy. This means that a person cannot be charged twice for the same offence once they have been acquitted. However, if new and compelling evidence that was not available at the first trial is presented, or if there was a hung jury, a new trial may be ordered and they may well be convicted in such a case. In addition, if there was found to be a ‘tainted acquittal’ where there was false evidence, intimidation of jury or witnesses or any form of bribery or corruption at the first trial, then a new trial can be ordered. This usually applies in the most serious offences such as murder, aggravated rape or manslaughter, so in these cases the offender may be tried twice.