The Presumption of Innocence in English Law

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The Presumption of Innocence in English Law

The presumption of an individual's innocence is one of the most widely recognized principles of criminal justice, both in English law and across the world. In fact, international and regional human rights bodies, organizations, and treaties also recognize this principle. They have advanced a position in which the presumption of an individual's innocence is considered a central pillar of fair proceedings. In English Law, this principle had always been in effect well before the famous Woolmington Case. However, it was not always perceived or adhered to by the judges. The famous 'Golden Thread' speech made by Viscount Sankey during the Woolmington Case continues to remain significant in English Law.

The Revolutionary Effect of the Woolmington Case

The Woolmington Case is considered to have had a revolutionary effect on English Criminal Law. It is common knowledge that judges do not create new laws. However, they simply reinforce what is currently held by laws. In this regard, Viscount Sankey, during the Woolmington Case, was simply stating what was already an existing position in English Law. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a 'rule of pleading' was already in existence. Under this rule, an indictment could only be conducted when it superseded any exonerating information or provisions (Orchard, 1988, p.617-18). In this regard, the burden of proof existed well before the Woolmington Case. However, it was often imposed on the accused, who had to prove his innocence as a means of quelling any accusations brought against him. Despite this, the 'golden thread' was not always visible to prosecutors and judges. In fact, if it was not for the Woolmington Case, the presumption of innocence would have never been perceived by judges (Block and Hostettler, 2002, p.48).

The Significance of Sankey's Speech

Additionally, the significance of Sankey's speech made during this landmark case is significant because it eliminated the presumption of murder in incidents involving accidents and provocation. Sankey explicitly states that a jury which was left in reasonable doubt regarding the unintended act of murder and murder resulting from provocation had to no choice but to acquit the accused of murder charges (Block and Hostettler, 2002, p.49). In this regard, Sankey demonstrated that all accused persons ought to be awarded the benefit of doubt. Since then, whenever there is doubt of murder, most persons found to have caused another individual's death either through provocation or accident are often awarded the lesser charge of manslaughter. In fact, In Mancini v D.P.P, Lord Simon sought Sankey's consent to award a manslaughter charge to the accused (Block and Hostettler, 2002, p.49).

The Burden of Proof

Besides its influence on the presumption of innocence, Sankey's speech also determined the party that ought to bear the burden of proof. His speech demonstrated that whenever the accused raises a defense against the charges brought against him, then the prosecution was charged with the responsibility of proving the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (Hemming, 2015, p.10). For instance, when a person accused of murder claims self-defense in a murder trial, then the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. In this manner, the prosecution has to 'negative' the defense advanced by the accused beyond any measure of doubt.

The Continued Significance Today

Today, the influence of the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof advanced by Sankey's speech remains significant. Sankey's principles continue to protect individuals from wrongful convictions. In fact, the prevention of wrongful convictions is now recognized to be the focal point of the presumption of innocence. Owing to this, an individual has every right to be acquitted if he has not been proven to be guilty of any crime (Jong and Lent, 2016, p.35). This is particularly evident in the Common Law today, in which an individual's presumption of evidence is now considered to set the standards for a court's decision to find an individual guilty of a crime.

Protection Against Intrusive Powers of the State

Furthermore, the influence of Sankey's speech is also evident today, in the manner in which the presumption of innocence safeguards individuals against intrusive powers of the state. Once an individual has been charged with a crime, the state may decide to hold him in jail. Furthermore, the state may also sanction searches and seizures as a result. However, the presumption of innocence protects an individual from these actions, particularly during the pre-trial phase. For instance, people today can now avoid jail by being released on bail. Furthermore, the presumption of innocence also counteracts state actions, such as searches and seizures, which may set in motion other processes and events that may lead him to be detained and convicted of a crime (Jong and Lent, 2016, p.35-6).

The Controversy Surrounding Reverse Burdens

Today, the reverse burden is present in certain provisions. Despite this, it continues to remain a contradictory and controversial act. This can be attributed to the significant role played by the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence promoted by Sankey in the hallmark Woolmington case. Some individuals, such as Sir Francis Adams, have made attempts to place the burden of proof on the accused under certain conditions. However, this decision was rejected (Orchard, 1988, p.622). On the same note, the R v Lambert, another hallmark case in the House of Lords, discussed the impact reverse burden has on the Human Rights Act. The ruling in this case upheld Sankey's principle of the presumption of innocence by ruling that the reversal of the legal burden of proof undermined the presumption of innocence, which is guaranteed by Article 6(2) of the Human Rights Act (Spencer M. and Spencer J., 2016, p.10).

Sankey's Influence on the English Legal System

Viscount Sankey's 'Golden Thread' speech made during the Woolmington Case placed particular emphasis on the burden of proof and the individual's presumption of innocence. Sankey's principles have gone on to have a significant influence on the English legal system. To begin with, the speech made judges more attuned and responsive to these principles. Additionally, it eliminated the presumption of murder in cases involving accidents and provocation. The speech also determined that the prosecution ought to bear the burden of proof. These principles continue to protect individuals from wrongful convictions and the intrusive powers of the state, particularly during the pre-trial phase. Finally, the controversy surrounding reverse burdens can also be attributed to Sankey's principles.


Block, B., and Hostettler, J. (2002). Famous cases: nine trials that change the law. Winchester: Waterside Press.

Hemming, A. (2015). Criminal Law guidebook: Queensland and Western Australia. Docklands Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Jong, F and Lent, L. (2016). ‘The presumption of innocence as a counterfactual principle’, Utrecht Law Review, 12(1), pp. 32-49.

Orchard, G. (1988). ‘The Golden Thread - somewhat frayed’, Otago Law Review, 6(4), pp.615-3.

Spencer, M., and Spencer, J. (2016). Concentrate questions and answers evidence. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

December 12, 2023

Crime Law

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Criminal Justice

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