The presumption of innocence is one of the basic principles of justice.
It is summed up in article 6.2 of the European Convention of
Human Rights: “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be
presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”
The principle states that the authorities must prove the guilt of a
It is not for him to prove his innocence.
of proof rests with the prosecution.
The principle can be traced back to Roman times. The 6th Century
Digest of Justinian states: Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui
negat - “Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies”.
The development of the presumption of innocence in the modern era
took place primarily in the common law jurisdictions of England and the
United States. From there it has taken root in international human
The presumption of innocence, as a general principle, extends beyond
the confines of the courts of law. The media should also respect a
person’s right to their good name, and their right to be presumed
innocent until they are found guilty by due process of law.
However, some argue that Catholic priests are nowadays effectively
denied the presumption of innocence, especially where an accusation of
sexual abuse is made against them.
The Association of Catholic Priests
is critical of the Irish bishops’ practise of making a public statement
about a priest when an abuse allegation is made: “this episcopal
practice seems to make the preservation of the presumption of innocence
of the accused priest very difficult to maintain, in spite of the
official Church re-assurance that that principle stands.”
Once such a
statement is made, the media often report the allegations, which can
make life very difficult for the priest concerned. It may take years
before an innocent priest is cleared of allegations.
If reporting on criminal proceedings, the media should carefully
state that anyone on trial is ‘accused’ and that what they are accused
of is ‘alleged’. Indeed, widespread coverage suggesting the guilt of a
defendant, may enable them to argue that they cannot get a fair trial.
In the past, publication was done only by professional media
Nowadays, anybody with internet access can instantly
publish material to the entire world.
In just a few hours, online
rumours can become repeated so often online that they become treated as
Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction
because a juror who had used their mobile phone to tweet about the trial
during jury deliberations.
In Texas, a juror was found guilty of
contempt of court when he tried to ‘friend’ the defendant on Facebook.
Similar concerns arose regarding the Australian trial of the suspect
for Irish murder victim Jill Meagher.
A vast amount of prejudicial
online commentary about the accused prompted fears that the defendant
would not get a fair trial.
Victorian police pleaded with people not to
post such comments, saying, “it is inappropriate to post speculation or
comments about matters before the courts”.
The internet can act as an uncensored global rumour mill.
Its role in
diminishing the presumption of innocence cannot be ignored - either by
the courts, or by anyone involved in the publication of allegations.
Even ‘trial by media’ is far preferable to ‘trial by social media’.
the internet age the publication of mere allegations are more likely
than ever to injure a person’s human right to be presumed innocent.