04 September 2012 Written by  Kahsay Debesu and Andualem Eshetu

Development of Evidence law

Is the need for evidence recent development?

No, it is not. It is possible to imagine that the need for evidence can be traced back to a time when people started to settle disputes before third parties. You can imagine how people settle disputes before elders of a certain locality.

The need for evidence was well known by ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Different concepts of evidence law such as relevancy of evidence, the duty to come up with evidence, proof by witnesses were practiced since ancient time even though they were not in such organized and comprehensive manner.

The present rules and principles of evidences are the outcome of the successive development, conducted in different stages of human civilization. In its very stage of progression, there was no any distinction on the rules of civil and criminal evidence Moreover, the means they use to prove a disputed fact may not be well founded to ensure the rational basis of decision making. In other words, the evidences which were applicable at that ancient time were irrational.          

Generally, we can classify the ancient means of proof in to two: Proof by ordeals and Proof by oath  

As we go back in history, the influence of religion is so strong that it is hardly possible to exclude religious notions. As a result, the above ancient means of proof had practiced for the past many years by using the psychological impacts of religious belief on the society.  

In different parts of the world ordeals were used to identify the person who did wrong. Ordeal is about subjecting somebody to undergo a painful experience like walking on fire, holding glowing with heat, put hands in to boiling water etc..  

The idea is that where a person who underwent the ordeals is not seriously affected like when the wound that resulted from the ordeal normally cures it is taken as a proof of innocence. If it, however, gets infection this is taken as proof of guilt.  

Moreover, there was proof by battle. Here the victim and the accused required to fight to each other. And if the victim wins the accused, the accused will be considered as criminal and convicted. While if the accused wins the victim, the accused will be free.  

Since proof by ordeal were extremely irrational and in human, relatively modern and human means of proof began to replace them immediately after 15th c. This was proof by oath in which the accused/ defendant lad required to take an oath before his testimony in his own case. As we known where religious beliefs are predominant, oath taking plays a great role to prove or disprove the alleged fact. However, this testimony of the accused/ defendant under oath was not sufficient alone. In addition to it, the court required the testimony of supporting witnesses (compurgators) for the purpose of confirming whether the words of the suspect under oath are true or not. However, such compurgators were not required to testify on the merit of the fact rather their testimony was limited in confirming to the court of law about the truthful nesses of the oath given by the suspect. So we can understand that how long the ancient proof by oath differs from the present one.  

Gradually, the above ancient ways of proof had begun to replace by the new and modern concepts of evidence rules. The writing of different scholars, judicial decisions and different laws enacted at different times based on different legal traditions becomes instrumental for the then development of rules and principles of evidence.  

Was there any traditional mechanism of proving alleged criminal acts in ancient Ethiopia?  

In a traditional highland Ethiopia that is in previous times, different methods of proof were applied to ascertain the commission of an act by a suspect. Firstly, the “laeba shai” method was applied to solicit admission from a suspect in the time when it becomes difficult to get witnesses. In this method of proof, a person was made to drink some herbal solution that would intoxicate him and he was left to run amuck and whoever is implicated by this person would be considered as the criminal.  

Later, this “ Leba shai” system becomes replaced by the institution called “ Afersata” or “ awchachigh”. This method involves the participation of the whole community. This seems that since the crime is against the community themselves, the member of the society may detect the crime and the criminal in secret manner, for instance by indicating the name of the criminal through poem.  

However, the methods of proving in “Afersata” and “Leba shai” have their own basic deficiencies. Because, in the first place, the suspects do not have a chance to challenge the veracity or the truthfulness of the evidence in the case of “ Leba shai” .And also, in the case of “ Afersata”, assume haw bad it may be if in every case the whole people aced to be gathered which may hinder the people from doing their day to day activities. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 September 2012 13:16