04 September 2012 Written by  Kahsay Debesu and Andualem Eshetu

Meaning, Nature and Purpose of Evidence law

1. Evidence Law defined

What is evidence law?

Before dealing with “evidence law”, it is important to discuss about the concept of “evidence” in general since evidence and law of evidence are two different things. The word “ evidence” is originated from a Latin term “evidentia” which means to show clearly, to make clear to the sight to discover clearly certain, to ascertain or to prove. Thus, evidence is something, which serves to prove or disprove the existence or non-existence of an alleged fact. The party who alleges the existence of a certain fact has to prove its existence and the party, who denies it, has to disprove its existence or prove its non-existence.  

However, all facts traditionally considered, as evidence may not be evidence in the eyes of evidence law. Rather, evidence is something presented before the court for the purpose of proving or disproving an issue under question. In other words, evidence is the means of satisfying the court of the truth or untruth of disputed fact between the parties in their pleadings.  

Draft Evidence Rules (DER) defines evidence, as “ a means whereby any alleged matter of fact, the truth of which is submitted to investigation, is proved and includes statements by accused persons, admission, Judicial notice, presumptions of law, and observation by the court in its Judicial capacity”. This definition may be more than what you think to be evidence. However, even though the kinds of evidences enumerated under Rule 3 of DER are not exhaustive, it failed to cite “documentary evidence” which is considered as one of reliable evidences, especially in civil cases, as one types of evidence. This seems the result of poor drafts' man ship.  

When we come to the meaning of evidence law, different writers defines it according to their own perceptions but with similar messages. The difference is one defines in amore elaborated way while others do not. For instance, Mc. Cormick defines evidence law as “… the system of rules and standards by which the admission of proof at the trial of a lawsuit is regulated” But this definition is not as such very helpful especially to a beginner, because, it fails to incorporate what things are going to be dealt with by the course.  

The title of the course, is the law of evidence. That does not mean only the rules concerning whether a given piece of information is admissible or not, but also such questions as what happens if there is no evidence on a given point? How much evidence, if any must a party introduces to prevent a court from ruling against him on factual proposition? What are the roles of the judge in evaluating the evidence and the like. To this effect, Robert Arthur Melin [here after referred as Melin], have made an attempt to define evidence law in a more comprehensive way. He defined it as follows.

The law of evidence is the body of legal rules developed and enacted to govern:

  1. B.facts that may be considered in court? This is the issue of relevant evidence that one should adduce before the court to support his allegation.  
  2. 1.Facts in issue
  3. 2.Facts relevant to facts in issue
  4. C.The methods of securing consideration of these facts
  5. 1.By proof
  6. i.Real (e.g. documentary, exhibits) evidence
  7. ii.Oral evidence

2. Certain facts, which need not be proved

  1. i.Judicial notice- Facts so notorious as tofacts in public knowledge ,capable of being verified by authoritative texts
  2. ii.Judicial admission (facts admitted in pleadings, at open court, in examination of parties, in testimony etc.)

C. The party that must secure consideration of what facts: This is about burden of proof and degree of proof required to win the case.                    

D. At the Appeal level evidence law can be said deal with the effect of failure to comply with rules in any of the above categories of evidence law (e.g. improper admission or rejection of evidence) Because the decision of the curt regarding the admissibility or non admissibility of evidence may form the subject of aground of appeal where an appeal is logged against conviction, discharge or acquittal [see Art 184(c of cr.p.c]. These errors on the admissibility or inadmissibility of evidence may be reversible or harmless error.

Here that one should ask is that “Does evidentiary errors constitute Reversible error? Most of the time, an evidentiary error alone is not very likely to induce an appellate court to term the error “ reversible” on the ground that the error affected a substantial right of a party. As a general matter, evidentiary reversal is perhaps most plausible, and most Justifiable, when the constitutional rights of a criminal defendant may be at stake or when it appeared to be out come determinative. Otherwise they are considered as harmless error, which was not prejudicial to the rights of the party, and for which; therefore, the court will not reverse the judgment.

When we come to our case, a decision of any court in Ethiopia will not be ripe for cassation unless it shows prima-facie case for the existence of a basic error of law.

And even though there is no illustration of the implications “basic error of law” in general and on evidentiary errors in particular, the experience of the cassation division shows, among others, the cases depict that there is a basic error of law when any court renders a decision or makes ruling. (1) When false evidence is produced against the party (b) by framing an issue which the pleadings or oral arguments of the parties have not raised or (c) by failing to consider an issue the pleadings are oral arguments of the parties have raised and the like (“The cassation Division and the Requirements for Basic Error of law” Muradu Abdo WONBER” law Jour 2nd half-year, January 2008 at P 52-53

To finalize it, the law of evidence in the major legal systems/ i.e., in the common law, civil law or in countries that have a mixed legal system) is the body of legal rules developed or enacted to govern.

Ø  What facts need to be proved and produced to the court

Ø  Which of the parties have the burden of proof

Ø  The required standards of proof to win the case

  The admissibility, creditability, and weight of evidence and other procedural matters as to how the evidence shall be produced before the court of law.

 

2. Nature of Evidence law

 

Where is the place of evidence law in relation to other laws?  

It is important to know the place of evidence law in relation to other laws. Laws may broadly be classified in to substantive and adjective. Adjective laws are concerned with the method of presenting cases to court proving them or generally enforcing the rights and duties provided under the substantive laws. While substantive laws, are those that defines rights and duties. This forms the greater part of the law, it would seem that it is more important part, since it defines what rights, privileges and duties one person may have against or owe another. However the rights, privileges and duties that exist under such law will mean nothing unless they can be enforced. This is why adjective law is just as important as the substantive law.  

Law of evidence is categorized under adjective law together with procedural laws, both criminal and civil procedure. Of course some scholars suggested that there will not be any problem if we incorporate rules of evidence as one part of procedural law since they have similar purpose. However, the consensus has been reached in categorizing law of evidence as one part of adjective law for the sake of establishing more effective system of adjudication of cases before the court of law. Although one can see grains of evidence law in procedural laws, their main dealing is with how pleadings can be framed, investigation conducted, evidence collected etc… This does not necessarily make the law of evidence to be part of procedural law.  

There are certain issues procedural laws never address and are left to evidence law. For instance, in the procedural law you did not study about the standard of proof, facts to be proved or need not be proved and the valve to be given to each term of evidence etc. These are left to evidence law therefore evidence law is not strictly speaking procedural law, but shares the commonality with procedural laws in the sense that both are means to the enforcement of the substantive law. Thus, evidence law suitably falls with in the general category of Adjective laws, which deal with the enforcement of the substantive law.  

However, this does not mean that all nations have their own code of evidence, which can be considered as one sect of Adjective law. For instance, as you see later our country Ethiopia does not have evidence code that when you are asked to show. The truth is that our rules of evidence are not put together in a code or proclamation, but are found widely scattered in both substantive and procedural law. You may remember articles on proof of marriage, proof of will, proof of contract, proof of ownership and a lot of legal presumptions that relate to evidence. In this case, the problem that you would face is whether law of evidence is part of procedural or substantive law?

Is law of evidence more of practical course?  

Law of evidence has more of the smell of the courtroom than most law school classes and it offers the opportunity for some court- room type exercises. But it cannot hope to duplicate the reality of the court room. Because the process of proof involves many participants, and it is impossible to regulate each and every action of those participants by the law of evidence unless we interpret the rules in line with purpose of the law of evidence in general and the rational behind of the specific rule in particular.  

One can understand more about the rules of evidence that he knows theoretically when he becomes a practitioner. For instance, it is the duty of the trial judge to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial. He can for example, limit the nature of questioning in cross-examination. And also he may exercise his discretion to exclude evidence if the prejudicial effect of which exceeds its probative value. Thus, the application of judge's discretion to secure the right to a fair trial may differ case to case bases.  

Moreover, the rule of evidence are not applied independently from other factors and do not exist solely as a matter of academic interest and debate. They are a dynamic set of principles which interact with other essential factors in a case including the rule of substantive law, the rule of procedure and the substantive characteristics of many of the participants in the trial. The latter includes the judge's opinions and perception, the skill of the advocates, a party's or witness's demeanor in court, his credibility, criminal convictions and personality traits. All of these factors ultimately come together to provide the bases for the court's decision in the case.  

Therefore, that is why we have said that the course will not try to teach you what you can better learn in practice or in clinical program. Rather, if you participate in a clinical program after your completion of this course you will probably report to your friends that you “learned more about evidence in two weeks in the clinic than in a whole semester in class”

 

3. Purpose or significance of Evidence law

 

Evidence is the “Key” which a court needs to render a decision. Without evidence there can be no proof. Evidence provides the court with information. Proving facts through the presentation of evidence means convincing court to accept a particular version of events. Of course, one can search truth even trough violating the constitutional rights of the parties. However, evidences obtained through unlawful means could not contribute for the maintenance of justice in the future. So the process of proof should be regulated by evidentiary rules and principles in order to achieve accelerated, fair and economic Justice.

In both criminal and civil proceedings, the law of evidence has a number of purposes. In short, the law of evidence regulates the process of proof. The rule of civil and criminal evidence, in conjunction with the rules of procedure, establish the frame work for the process of proof and the conduct of litigation, so that a lawyer advising his client or preparing his case for trial or presenting it to the court or tribunal will know what issues his client must prove in order to succeed.  

The law of evidence also has amoral purpose by establishing and regulating the rules relating to the process of proof in proceedings in courts and tribunals. Whilst this moral dimension is important in civil proceedings, it has special currency in criminal cases as it reflects the powerful public interest in bringing the guilty to justice, whilst allowing the innocent to go free. In some cases the rules of evidence may actually prevent the truth from being discovered in the wider public interest.  

Moreover, especially in criminal cases, law of evidence stands to protect the accussed's right to affair trial for instance, by containing many rules which excludes potentially relevant evidences like the general rule that evidence of the defendant's character and previous convictions will not be admitted at trial (see Art 138 of cr.p.c and Rule-145 of DER)  

Is there a consensus on the importance of evidence law in regulating the questions of relevancy?

Even though there is a consensus on the significance of evidence law in shaping the process of proof, there is a dispute on the question whether the law of evidence shall determine which evidence should be produced and which are not i.e. on question of relevancy. Regarding this issue there are two approaches.

According to eminent legal thinkers like Jermy Bentham and William Twining the over all aim if the process of adjudication is the ''rectitude of decision making''. This is achieved by the correct application of substantive law to the true facts in the particular case .In this way; the aims of justice are served.  

Bentham long espoused a utilitarian theory that the best way to arrive at the truth was through an application of “free proof”. It was his considered opinion that a judge could be trusted to reach a factually correct verdict provided all relevant evidence was adduced. In his view, too many rules of evidence and procedure lead to the exclusion of too much relevant evidence, there by diminishing the search for a factually correct truth. Thus he advocated abolition of all laws operating to exclude evidence. Recognizing the need for some restrictions, Bentham felt laws of evidence were needed only to the extent of preventing 'vexation, expense or delay' and not to hamper the judge from finding out the truth of matters by using different tactics and approaches.  

However, the supporters of the second approach argued that it would obviously be undesirable and chaotic if a judge had unlimited discretion as to which evidence should be admitted in a case, and as such, there is clearly a need for there to be ground rules for the admission of evidence so that common standards are applied between all courts and tribunals dealing with the same type of case. Otherwise, the judges may loss their golden time which in return contributes for delay of justice. Therefore, they argued that, in order to give timely and effective justice the role of evidence rules which regulates the question of relevancy is unquestionable. However this does not mean that the judges have no any discretion. In some instances the rule provides for the mandatory exclusion of evidence. In other instances discretion is given to the judge to exclude relevant evidence in circumstances were fairness demands it. But there is no judicial discretion to include relevant evidence, which might nonetheless have a bearing on the search for the truth, but which has to be deemed inadmissible by applying a rule of evidence.  

As we shall see a number of rules relating to admissibility and use of evidence are directed towards minimizing the risk of wrongful convictions. And the main risks of error stem largely from the admission of unreliable or prejudicial evidence. Thus this concept of free proof may allow the court to admit unreliable or prejudicial evidence, which lead it to a hasty conclusion.

The concept of free-proof also ignores the fundamental importance of procedural rights and the symbolic importance of trials. Verdicts of the court to have amoral legitimacy, trials must uphold basic human and constitutional rights. And Justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. That is why most trials are held in public. That means the public must have a faith in its criminal Justice system and the verdicts that are delivered by it and this can only be the case if the trial is perceived to be a fair one. And respect for procedural rights through evidence law is a key component of the right to a fair trial. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 September 2012 12:52
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