In law, any testimony (eg. oral or written statements, such as an affidavit), exhibit (eg. physical objects) or other documentatry material which is admissible (ie. allowed to be considered by the trier of fact, such as jury) in a judicial or administrative proceeding (eg. a court of law).
Rules of Evidence
Rules of evidence govern if, when, how, and for what purpose proof of a case is placed before a trier of fact for consideration.
In the judicial system of the United States, the trier of fact may be a judge or a jury depending on the purpose of the trial, and the choices of the parties.
The rules of evidence have been developed over the last thousand years and are based upon the rules from English Common Law brought to the new world by early settlers. Their intent is to be fair to both parties, disallowing emotionally charged allegations to be brought up without a basis in provable fact. They have gotten poor press as a Legal technicality, but are an important part of the system.
Prevailing in court requires a very good understanding of the rules of evidence in your particular venue. The rules vary depending upon whether you are in criminal court, civil court or family court, and they vary by jurisdiction. One reason to have a lawyer, among others, is that he is familiar with these rules of evidence. If you were allowed to simply tell the judge what you know to be the truth, and how you found out about it, you might prevail. However, you may not be allowed to tell your story the way you want to within the rules of evidence.
Federal Rules of Evidence
The Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) are the rules that govern the admissibility of evidence in the United States federal court system. While the Federal Rules of Evidence apply only in federal courts, a large majority of states have adopted similar (and sometimes identical) rules for use in their respective courts.
Prior to the adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975, the federal system relied primarily on case law, or non- codified common law, for rules of evidence. While some states had codified rules of evidence prior to 1975, a majority also used common law rules. The FRE were inspired in part by 1) the drafting of the Uniform Rules of Evidence in the 1950s, 2) the success of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure since their 1938 adoption, and 3) the 1965 version of the California Evidence Code.
The United States Supreme Court promulgated drafts of the FRE in 1969, 1971 and 1972, but Congress then exercised its right under the Rules Enabling Act to suspend implementation of the FRE until it could study them further. After a long delay blamed on the Watergate scandal, Congress allowed the FRE to become federal law in 1975.
Rule 102 of the FRE, titled "Purpose and Construction", states, "[t]hese rules shall be construed to secure fairness in administration, elimination of unjustifiable expense and delay, and promotion of growth and development of the law of evidence to the end that the truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined." Thus, according to rule 102, the purposes of the FRE can be summed up in four words: fairness, efficiency, clarity, justice.
However, the FRE were adopted for reasons other than those explicitly presented in rule 102. First, the common law evidence rules were not uniform - evidence laws would often vary from one circuit to another, not to mention the variance among state courts. A single, uniform set of federal rules was thought to eliminate some of the problems caused by variance. Second, many legal scholars, lawyers, and judges considered the traditional common law rules harsh in some instances and nonsensical in others. Thus, the FRE liberalized the common law rules in many respects to eliminate these adverse effects.
The FRE are divided into eleven articles, with each article containing one or more rules. The articles are:
I. General Provisions II. Judicial Notice III. Presumptions in Civil Actions and Proceedings IV. Relevancy and its Limits V. Privileges VI. Witnesses VII. Opinions and Expert Testimony VIII. Hearsay IX. Authentication and Identification X. Contents of Writings, Recordings, and Photographs XI. Miscellaneous Rules
There are sixty-seven total rules. Some of the most notable rules include:
- Rule 401 defines "relevant evidence" - "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence."
- Rule 403 excludes relevant evidence that would cause prejudice, confusion, or waste of time if admitted - "[a]lthough relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence."
- Rule 802 excludes hearsay evidence from consideration at trial (though subsequent rules create numerous exceptions to this general rule) - "Hearsay is not admissible except as provided by these rules or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority or by Act of Congress."
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