In Scotland, there can be three conclusions to a criminal trial: (1) the accused is found guilty, (2) the accused is found not proven and (3) the accused is found not guilty. This seems fairly straight forward, (1) means they did it (2) means nobody is sure whether they did it and (3) means they didn’t do it. Only that’s not really how it works; it is a great deal more complicated than this.
Let’s start with numbers (2) and (3), although they look different they are identical in law: the Crown has failed to prove its case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt, and as such the accused is acquitted. Historically, this meant that the accused could never be tried again for the same crime. However, following fairly recent changes to the ancient double jeopardy rule (the rule that said no person may be tried twice for the same crime), it is now possible for the Crown to have a second go at prosecuting an individual for a crime for which they have already been acquitted in a set of strict and limited circumstances. On the whole though, an acquittal means that the person leaves court innocent in the eyes of the law (exactly how they arrived at court) and free from the threat of a further prosecution in connection with the same matter.
Our system is extremely simple in respect of a person’s standing in law when accused of a crime: all persons are presumed innocent until found guilty in a Court of law. That finding of guilt may be as a result of the accused’s own guilty plea, or it may be following a trial. An acquittal following a trial does not necessarily mean that the complainer has told lies or has not been the victim of a crime. What it means is that the Crown failed to put before the Court (a Justice of the Peace, Sheriff or Jury depending on the forum in which the trial is held) to convince the Court that the accused is guilty of the charges alleged by the Crown. It is for the Crown to prove the charge, and to prove the charge that it alleges. Certain aspects of charges can be deleted if the Crown has failed to prove them, but has overall proved the offence. For example, an ‘aggravation’ can be deleted from the charge where the evidence does not support the aggravation, but where it supports the basic offence. Other things can be deleted from a charge as well. For example, if the Crown alleges assault to severe injury and permanent disfigurement, but the evidence only proved assault to severe injury, the permanent disfigurement aspect to the charge could be deleted. Another example could be where the charge alleges that the accused assaulted the complainer by punching and kicking the complainer, but the evidence only proved that the accused punched, rather than punched and kicked, the word ‘kicked’ could be deleted from the charge.
These deletions can be made by the Crown itself, or they can be made by the finders of fact (e.g. a jury could remove an aggravation from the charge where it finds the basic offence proved, but not the aggravation alleged). The onus is on the Crown to prove the essential elements of the case though. Where it fails to satisfy the finder of fact (in the case of a jury trial that would be the jury to a majority of 8 to 7) that the accused committed the crime alleged, the accused is entitled to be acquitted; he or she is free to go with the law viewing them to be innocent.
Of course, not every single case that results in an acquittal has arisen out of the lies of the complainer. We have a system that requires the Crown to bring sufficient evidence before the Court to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime alleged. The standard of proof is extremely high and the burden largely falls on the Crown, and for very good reason. A finding of guilt could allow the State to deprive an individual of their liberty for a very long time. Furthermore the state has far more resources at its disposal when bringing a prosecution against an individual.
In recognising that some guilty people do walk away from court, it is not an invitation to treat those who are acquitted with suspicion. The law is clear: they were innocent before the trial and they remain so after the trial. There is no presumption of guilt and nor should there be. It is an effect of our system of justice that some guilty people will walk free after a trial, just as some innocent people will be convicted. Both are unfortunate, but doing as much as possible to avoid the latter results in the former.
There certainly should not be a jump to the conclusion that the complainer(s) in a case where the accused is acquitted have perjured themselves. Where there is evidence that this is the case it should, of course, be investigated and a prosecution brought where it is in the public interest to do so. However,due process has to be followed just as much in that case as in the case that went before it.
In essence, while an acquittal does equal innocence in the eyes of the law; it is realistic to accept that it does not always equal what might be termed as ‘true innocence’. However, whether the person is innocent or not is quite frankly irrelevant beyond the trial. In legal terms they are innocent and as a consequence society has an obligation to judge them as innocent, and to treat them as such. The court that heard the case and acquitted the accused heard all of the available evidence and decided that it was insufficient to allow for a conviction. The accused is entitled to put the episode behind them and to move on with their life. Equally, complainers are entitled to support to move on from the crime of which they have been a victim. In a lot of cases the fact that they have been the victim of a crime is not in doubt, the police and the Crown have just been unable to show that it was the accused that perpetrated the crime (and it may very well be the case that it was someone other than the accused that committed the crime, hence the right of the accused to have society treat them as innocent).
I hope that this makes sense. If not, here is what I have been trying to say distilled down into five small points:
- When a person is acquitted it does not automatically follow that the complainer wasn’t telling the truth
- Equally, it does not follow that simply because the complainer may not have been lying that the accused got away with their crimes.
- The acquitted accused is entitled to move on from the episode and obtain support as required.
- The complainer is also entitled to move on from the episode and obtain support as required
- Where there is evidence to support that the complainer wasn’t telling the truth, it should be investigated and prosecuted where such a prosecution would be in the public interest.