Significance of the Word ‘Reasonable’
The word “Reasonable” is seemingly ordinary, but it is fundamental in law. The online dictionary describes it as showing reason or sound judgment, being within the bounds of commonsense. It dictates acceptable human behaviour everywhere. It crosses cultural barriers. It is a reasonable measure and standard for all human behaviour. It would be a chaotic world if it were not accepted.
It is used in almost every branch of the law, namely in tort, in contract and criminal law, where reasonable behaviour in the performance of duties is expected. Some persons, however, such as the mentally challenged, are outside this description. We would take a look at this powerful word.
Our continued existence in our world is dependent on reasonable behaviour by everyone. It is incumbent on everyone to exercise reasonable behaviour, otherwise we could be committing offences against one another on a regular basis. There is a duty of care expected of everyone of those with whom we come into contact. If we do not take the care, then we would be causing harm to other persons and any reasonable, ordinary prudent person would know that he or she must exercise care. In carrying out this duty of care, we must be moderate and not extreme or reckless in our behaviour. As a driver on the road that is used by other drivers and pedestrians, there is a duty to act as the reasonable person and this means observing the traffic rules, staying within the speed limit and not engaging in any outrageous behaviour. Road rage is not reasonable behaviour. It crosses the bounds of acceptable behaviour. It puts other people at risk and could cause harm to others.
The law therefore creates a “reasonable person,” a construct in theory of a person who shows average judgment, skill or care in his conduct. Civil and criminal cases involving negligence use the reasonable person standard for comparison when deciding issues of liability. The question of how an ordinary person would behave is posited. This theoretic person is not too fearless or too cautious and it provides a person against whom the offender before the court is judged. The reasonable person standard is not applied uniformly to everyone; for example, the conduct of persons with special skills; a doctor is judged against the average person in his profession; a child is judged against a hypothetical child of similar age, experience and intelligence.
This was inherited from the common law and is the standard that must be met in prosecution evidence in criminal matters. Civil cases require a preponderance of evidence or balance of probabilities; that is, it is more likely than not; but criminal cases require beyond a reasonable doubt in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant in the dock is guilty. Hence where there is the smallest doubt in the minds of the jurors in a criminal matter, there must be an acquittal of the defendant in the dock. Reasonable doubt does not mean beyond the shadow of a doubt. This reasonable doubt standard is most acceptable standard because criminal trials involve grave consequences of life and death. Some jurisdictions explain the reasonable doctrine to the jurors by simply telling them that they must be sure of the guilt of the defendant when making the decision to convict.
Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law. E-mail address is: [email protected]