Objection. Hearsay. If you've been involved in a contested trial (or watched a legal show on TV), you have probably heard this word come up. But what exactly
does it mean, and why is it important?
“Hearsay” refers to an out-of-court statement that is being offered as evidence in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. In other words, it's something someone said outside of court that is now being repeated in court to prove that whatever was said is the truth. E.g.presenting the statement “John told me that the red car struck the blue car” as evidence to prove that the red car in fact struck the blue car.
To understand why hearsay is problematic in court, it's important to consider why courts place such a high value on testimony that is given under oath and subject to cross-examination. When a witness testifies in court, they are able to be questioned by both the prosecutor and the defense, and their testimony can be scrutinized and challenged. This allows the judge and/or jury to evaluate the credibility and reliability of the witness's testimony.
Hearsay, on the other hand, is considered inherently unreliable because there is no opportunity to cross-examine the person who made the statement or to assess their credibility. Using the example above: John may not be a credible witness for a number of reasons (he could be a friend of the blue car’s driver or he might be color blind, etc.). Simply put, without the opportunity to cross-examine the original speaker, it's difficult to determine the accuracy of the statement.
Because of this concern of unreliability, hearsay is generally not admissible in court. There are several exceptions to this rule, such as when the statement falls under the "excited utterance" or "dying declaration" exceptions, which allow certain types of hearsay to be admitted in certain circumstances.
It's important to note that not all statements made outside of court are considered hearsay. Out of court statements not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted are not hearsay. Additionally, admissions made by a party opponent are generally excepted from the rule against hearsay. For example, in a lawsuit between the drivers of the two cars in our example here, a witness could likely testify that he observed the red car’s driver stating that the accident was his fault.
Keep in mind that the rule against hearsay can apply to documents as well. Witness statements, letters, records, etc. may be deemed inadmissible hearsay.
Hearsay is an important concept in the legal system as a tool to ensure that evidence presented in court is reliable and can be properly evaluated. It can be frustrating at times that relevant evidence must be excluded due to hearsay, but this is outweighed by the courts’ interest in maintaining integrity within the proceedings. If you are involved in litigation, it is important to understand whether your evidence may be deemed hearsay and, if so, whether it can still be admissible either through an exception or another non-hearsay method.