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The criminal trial: functions and purposes

Video discussing functions and purposes of the criminal trial in England and Wales.
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The basic function of the trial is to produce a decision whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty.
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First of all, let’s look at what that actually means: the trial is, in effect, asking whether the prosecution have been able to prove – to the standard required by law – that a defendant committed the offence with which he is charged. Now what is that standard required by law? Well, the prosecution have to prove their case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. What does that mean? Well, where a jury is hearing a case they are often instructed that they must not convict unless they are ‘satisfied so that they are sure’ that the defendant committed the offence.
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Notice – and it is a very important principle – that the defendant does not have to prove their innocence – the burden of proof is on the prosecution. We sometimes say that the trial process is adversarial – that is, it involves opposing parties or adversaries presenting competing accounts. The prosecution wins if they persuade the court – to that standard of beyond reasonable doubt – that the defendant is guilty; and the defence wins if they prevent the prosecution from reaching that goal. So the trial is not directly asking ‘what happened?’ The
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trial also serves a range of other purposes: So, it provides a regulated environment in which a verdict can be reached. There are rules about how the parties must conduct themselves, and about what evidence can and cannot be used. The intention here is that verdicts are not arbitrary, and that they can be trusted. It provides an open, public, visible forum for the resolution of the question of whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In a democratic state, criminal justice
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should be as open as possible: when we think about secret justice processes, we often associate them with undemocratic states. Openness is about allowing scrutiny of the process. Generally speaking, trials are open to members of the public to attend. The trial also provides an opportunity for the public to actually participate in the criminal justice process. So the people who make the decision on guilt in a trial – the jury in more serious cases or magistrates in other cases – are members of the public, rather than legal professionals. One of the intentions here is to show that the process is not ‘owned’ exclusively by professionals or by the State, but by society as a whole.

In this video, Patrick Gallimore discusses the criminal trial and its scope. He explains the issues of the burden and standard of proof, and goes on to consider some of the underlying purposes of the trial.

Why do you think the rules on burden and standard of proof are as they are? Do you think the underlying purposes of the trial to which Patrick refers are good purposes? How might you decide whether they are achieved in practice? Do discuss your thoughts with your colleagues.

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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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