What Are the Rules of Evidence?

The federal rules of evidence can be challenging to wrap your mind around. The good news is that it is not necessary for you to understand all of them right now. By simply understanding several select rules, you can gain deeper insight into the strength of your case.

Introduction of Evidence: Why Evidence Rules Are Important To Understand

The rules of evidence are an essential part of any legal claim whether it involves a claim of breach of contract or legal malpractice. Understanding how evidence works can help you understand the strength of your legal claim and what could bolster its chance of success. 

For example:

  • Some evidence is considered admissible, while other evidence is inadmissible in a court of law.
  • Some inadmissible evidence may be admissible in the case of specific exceptions.
  • Some evidence carries greater weight in a lawsuit.

Understanding the federal rules of evidence can help you focus on the critical aspects of your legal case. 

What are the rules of evidence? 

There are 68 federal rules of evidence structured under 11 articles. It would take numerous posts to sufficiently cover all the laws of evidence in detail, but not every evidentiary rule is as crucial for you to understand initially. 

Some of the more critical rules of evidence can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Real evidence
  • Demonstrative evidence
  • Documentary evidence
  • Testimonial evidence
  • The hearsay statement exception for admissibility

Understanding these three categories of evidence can help you gauge the strength of your case.

Evidence With Substantive Admissibility

In trials, there are two main types of evidence: substantive and demonstrative. Demonstrative evidence is not directly relevant, while substantive evidence is. Substantive evidence supports an issue of fact rather than procedural or collateral issues. Substantive evidence helps to prove the necessary elements of a case directly. 

Some examples of substantive evidence could include:

  • Corporate reports 
  • Accounting records
  • Security footage
  • Bank statements

While substantive evidence is generally more valuable, sometimes, demonstrative evidence is just as necessary in a case. Not all evidence is weighted equally. 

Four types of evidence to understand are:

  • Real evidence: tangible items
  • Demonstrative evidence: models
  • Documentary evidence: written models
  • Testimonial evidence: verbal statements

The evidence your side puts forward in court should support your most powerful arguments. A focused approach that centers on your main assertions is more effective than slinging various sweeping allegations. If your evidence is sufficiently strong, your case may be settled before entering a courtroom — particularly if you have what amounts to prima facie evidence.

Real Evidence: Tangible Items

Real evidence is another term for substantive evidence. It consists of real, tangible, physical items that may be used to prove or disprove a case. Real, tangible evidence is directly relevant to your case. The court can examine this evidence and come to a conclusion about a fact under consideration.

To be admissible at trial, real evidence must be:

  • Material, meaning it tangibly proves a disputed fact
  • Relevant, meaning it has a reasonable likelihood of helping to prove or disprove an issue of fact
  • Competent, meaning it is traditionally accepted as reliable evidence

Real evidence is generally given more weight than other evidence.

Demonstrative: Models

As the name implies, demonstrative models offer a demonstration of the evidence. It is used to explain, clarify, and offer a visual representation. Demonstrative evidence is often used to illustrate a witness's testimony. Demonstrative models may include:

  • Charts that depict financial injury
  • Handwriting samples
  • Maps and diagrams of a crime scene
  • Forensic animations

Demonstrative evidence should fairly and accurately reflect the witness's testimony and support the facts the party is trying to prove. Demonstrative evidence can help enhance witness testimony. Jurors may better understand the witness's statement when they encounter a corresponding demonstrative model.

Documentary: Written Models

Documentary evidence takes the form of a recorded document. This written evidence is used to prove or disprove an allegation. Documentary evidence must typically be genuine, relevant, and original to be admissible — counsel often agree to use copies of relevant documents. 

Documentary evidence may include witnessed and written agreements, recorded events, and communications. Examples of documentary evidence may include:

  • Shareholder agreements
  • Employment contracts
  • Memoranda reports
  • Communications, like emails and letters
  • Resumes 
  • Records, including public records, medical records, judicial records, and other official records

Courts and juries may weigh documentary evidence more heavily than testimonial evidence offered by witnesses.

Testimonial: Verbal Statements

Testimonial evidence takes the form of verbal statements. These are most often seen as sworn witness testimonies. These testimonies may come from expert witnesses or eyewitnesses to a fact in question. The witness swears under oath and delivers their testimony to the court.

Testimony may involve the witness's opinion on a matter at issue. However, their opinion is only admissible if it has a proper foundation:

  • The witness's opinion is reasonably based on their perception, and 
  • The witness's opinion is helpful in understanding the facts of the case or the witness's testimony

Additionally, a witness's opinion may be admissible if:

  • The witness is classified as an expert witness who has specialized knowledge of the evidence presented at the trial

Examples of testimonial evidence include:

  • Statement of identification
  • Expert opinion evidence
  • Statement of declarant

The Hearsay Statement Exception for Admissibility

One law of evidence, Rule 803, is titled Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay, and it governs the admissibility of declarations. Hearsay evidence is a statement made out of court that is admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

This means that hearsay is:

  • A statement that was spoken or written, like an email, and 
  • Spoken or created out of court, "in the real world," and
  • Admitted or presented to the court, and which
  • Proves the truth of the matter asserted, meaning it is presented to prove a fact contained within the statement

An example of when a statement is admissible or inadmissible hearsay follows:

Alan saw someone commit bank fraud. Later, Alan tells Bob that the person he saw was Cheryl. 

  • Bob offers Alan's statement up in court ⇢ Inadmissible hearsay. 
  • Alan gives the same statement to police in a witness statement that is offered as evidence in court by the prosecution ⇢ The witness statement is inadmissible hearsay.
  • Alan swears an oath in court and gives oral testimony that he saw Cheryl commit bank fraud ⇢ Admissable, not hearsay.

The general rule is that hearsay is not admissible. However, there are more than 20 exceptions to the Hearsay Rule, including:

  1. Present sense impression
  2. Excited utterance
  3. Existing mental, emotional, or physical conditions, which excludes a statement of memory and a statement of intent
  4. Statements for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment
  5. An admission against interest

Further there are other situations where  a statement may appear to be hearsay, but is not, for example, if it is not offered for its truth. As you can see the rules of evidence can be confusing to a non-lawyer.  Speaking with an attorney who specializes in evidentiary rules may be advisable. It is important to understand if the evidence you believe is important to your case is admissible. 

Speak With a Professional in Evidence Law

If you are gathering evidence for use in an upcoming legal claim, speaking with a highly knowledgeable evidence attorney may help improve the outcome of your case. Contact King & Jones's evidence legal team to arrange your consultation and get your questions answered.

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