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What Are The Five Basic Principles of Criminal Law?

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Criminal law is a complex area of law as it relates to the criminal justice system. Crimes committed under criminal law are subject to several key principles which will be explored below.

Crime - General Principles of Criminal Law

There are many principles of criminal law however below, five key principles will be discussed;

  1. Evidence;
  2. Criminal Intent;
  3. Presumption of Innocence;
  4. Proof beyond reasonable doubt; and
  5. Defences.


The basic principles of criminal law stem from the understanding that every person is innocent until proven guilty. This is why evidence is such an important principle of criminal law. Evidence is the lynchpin for a determination of fact. Without evidence, there can be no determination other than a he said/she said scenario.

Evidence needs to be considered from all angles however. A single piece of information can be considered from different angles. It can also ignore the preceding or following parts. For example, text messages are extremely difficult to use at times because they only paint one part of the story. Whilst that story may be useful to one party it is a risk if the remainder of the story does not suit. There is always an inherent danger in picking and choosing the section to bring to light.

A further important law principle related to evidence is double jeopardy. Double jeopardy prevents an individual from being charged twice with the same offence. This rule prevents an individual being punished twice and is a critical component of the justice system.

What Is Criminal Intent?

Intent refers to when an individual fully intended to commit the offence or prohibited act and cause the outcome that they did. For example, if an individual has criminal intent to commit grievous bodily harm by striking their victim to the head with a hammer.

Intent can be difficult to prove depending on the circumstances as commonly, people claim their actions were in self defence or as a result of a level of intoxication or poor mental health. It is rarely ever a clear cut situation.

The Presumption of Innocence

In Australia, there is an understanding that every individual is innocent until proven guilty. This means that proof must be brought before the court, tried and tested before a decision is made. This is why we have a hearing or trial process before a determination of guilt is made.

That is not to say however that safeguards do not need to be put in place. Depending on the severity of what has been alleged, an element of caution needs to be considered by the court which is why people are often subject to bail conditions or in more extreme cases, pr trial terms of imprisonment. If a risk has the potential to exist and jeopardize the safety of an individual, group or the wider public; cation must be taken.

Once the prosecution and defence have fully run their case, the Magistrate or Jury (depending on which court the matter is being heard) will consider everything that has been put to them and determine whether the individual is guilty or not guilty.

Proof Beyond Reasonable Doubt

When the prosecution seek to convict an offender of an offence or offences, is their responsibility to prove the offenders guilty beyond a reasonable persons doubt. A reasonable person is considered to be an ordinary person who does not have any legal background or training to draw from. This ensures an unbiased decision is made as the individuals considering the facts presented to them can do so based off of only what they have been told.

It is the responsibility of the defence to prove that the defendant could not have committed the crime they are accused of and that there is doubt as to whether they did. It is the Supreme court jurisdiction which see’s individuals subject to a jury of their peers where this process plays out.

They do not however determine the punishment upon a guilty verdict. That responsibility lies solely with the judge.

Criminal Defences

As with all scenarios, there are a few different defences people may try to rely on with no one particular defence being more likely to succeed than the other. For all offenders there are standard defences of intoxication, self defence and mental health which tend to be relied on however you must be able to prove those factors exist.

Other defences however may stem from more circumstantial factors such as mistake, accident, misleading information, etc. It is critical that if you seek to rely on a defence, you run it past a lawyer first for them to advise your chances of success.


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