Legal Definition of Hearsay
Hearsay is an out-of-court statement that is presented in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. It is a concept in the law of evidence that prohibits the use of second-hand testimony or documents to prove a fact in court if the person who originally made the statement is not available for cross-examination. The rationale behind this rule is to prevent unreliable evidence from being used to convict or find liability against a person.
The classic example of hearsay is a witness testifying in court, “John told me he saw the defendant commit the crime,” where John is not available to testify himself. In this case, the statement is hearsay because it relies on the credibility of someone who is not present in court to testify under oath and be cross-examined.
Hearsay evidence is generally inadmissible in court proceedings due to concerns about its reliability and fairness. The person who made the original statement is not under oath when they made it, and there is no opportunity for the opposing party to cross-examine them. However, there are numerous exceptions and exemptions to the hearsay rule, where hearsay evidence can be admitted. These exceptions are based on circumstances where the out-of-court statement is deemed sufficiently reliable. Common exceptions include:
- Statements Made Under the Belief of Impending Death: If a person makes a statement believing their death is imminent, it may be considered reliable enough to be admissible.
- Statements Against Interest: A statement is admissible if it goes against the declarant’s own interest at the time it was made, suggesting it is likely to be true.
- Statements Made in the Course of Regular Conduct: For example, business records are often exempted from the hearsay rule.
- Excited Utterances: Statements made spontaneously in response to a shocking event are often considered reliable and may be admissible.
- Prior Testimony: If the witness is unavailable, their prior testimony given under oath and subject to cross-examination may be admissible.
The rules governing hearsay are complex and vary by jurisdiction, but the general principle is to ensure that evidence is reliable and that the rights of the parties to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them are protected. Attorneys must carefully navigate these rules to effectively present or challenge evidence in court.
In summary, hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement, and it is generally inadmissible in court due to concerns about its reliability. However, there are several exceptions to this rule based on the belief that certain statements carry sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness.