Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Hearsay in its most general and oldest meaning is an out of court statement offered to establish the facts asserted in that statement.
Generally in common law courts the "hearsay rule" applies, which says that hearsay is not admissible as evidence. However, the rules for admissibility are more relaxed in court systems based on the civil law system. In the civil law system, the courts, whether consisting only of judges or featuring a jury, have wide latitude to appreciate the evidence brought before them.
One rationale against admissibility of hearsay is that the credibility of the person being quoted (the out-of-court "declarant") or the declarant's observations cannot be cross-examined by the person against whom the testimony is being proffered. In this connection, the hearsay rule helps to protect the right of a criminal defendant (guaranteed under the sixth amendment to the U.S. Constitution) "to be confronted with witnesses against him." But the hearsay rule also has much wider application as a basis for the exclusion of proffered evidence.
While the 'hearsay rule' is commonly thought of within the context of "who said what to whom," in practice it is more significant in its application to documents and electronic records. For example, many documents and entries on those documents are created by a machine or as part of a process where the person who actually created the document is unknown.
While hearsay is generally inadmissible as evidence in common law legal proceedings such as litigation there are many exceptions, some (but far from all) of which apply only when the original speaker (known as the declarant) is unavailable. Exceptions include:
- dying utterances and other statements under belief of impending death: often depicted in movies; the police officer asks the person on his deathbed, "Who did it" and the victim replies, "The butler did it".
- declarations against interest: the declarant makes a statement, such as confessing to a crime, that goes so clearly against the declarant's own interest that a reasonable person would not make such an admission unless the person believed it was true.
- the business records exception: business records created during the ordinary course of business are considered reliable and can usually be brought in under this exception if the proper foundation is laid when the evidence is introduced into evidence. In this usage, business records has a very broad meaning and includes police records, or records of non-profit organizations. In the United States Federal Rules of Evidence , separate exceptions are made for public records, family records, and records in ancient documents of established authenticity. When regular or public records are kept, the absence of such records may also be used as admissible hearsay evidence.
- excited utterances relating to startling events or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition.
- prior testimony: if the testimony was given under oath and the party against whom the testimony is being proffered was present and had the opportunity to cross examine the witness at that time. Often used to enter depositions into the court record at trial.
Probably the most important category of exceptions to the inadmissibility of out-of-court statements concerns evidence of statements made out of court by a party to the proceedings; these statements are normally admissible into evidence against that party.
Moreover, a statement is not considered hearsay if it is not used to prove the truth of the statement it asserts. For example, testimony from a witness who heard Y declare (out of court) that "X shot B," may be inadmissible to establish that X shot B, but it could be properly introduced to show that Y 'thought' that X shot B ("state of mind"). Similarly, letters from customers complaining that an employee was rude could (if otherwise admissible) be introduced to show that the employer had received complaints about the employee (if that is a properly provable proposition in the case); the letters would not be hearsay if offered for that purpose. The letters would only be hearsay if they were offered as evidence that the employee was in fact rude.
In some jurisdictions such as Canada the limited exceptions format to the rule have been replaced by a more general theory of exceptions to the hearsay rule that allows courts to decide when documents, testimony or other evidentiary proof can be used that might not otherwise be considered. [more can be written about this].
Today the hearsay rule has developed into a complex set of evidentiary rules of admissibility that are used to prevent various types of statements and documents from being entered into evidence in various types of court proceedings, though they may be allowed in other types of alternative dispute resolution. Generally speaking hearsay is a concept that developed in the common law legal tradition in the context of the adversarial system of decision making.
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