Rules of Evidence

Legal Compliance Resource
October 10, 2012 — 1,575 views  

Rules of Evidence

Rules of evidence decide the admissibility of evidence before a court in proof of a legal case, type of court, type of case and who sits in judgment. Evidentiary rules differ in Federal and state courts. Additionally, evidentiary rules differ between criminal and civil cases. Finally, rules of admissibility differ between a trial by a judge or a jury. Federal Rules of Evidence govern Federal jurisdictions, but state jurisdictions have their own evidentiary rules. In general, rules do not vary greatly between states and the federal government.

Evidence is can be categorized as physical evidence, documentary evidence or testimony. Regardless of category, all evidence must be relevant, both logically and legally, to the issue(s) on trial. First, evidence must be logically relevant to the issues and intended to prove the presenting party’s contention(s). In addition, all evidence must be legally relevant. Hearsay evidence, for example, may fulfill the logical requirements for admissibility but be legally inadmissible. By requiring a legal basis for admissibility, evidentiary rules for legal relevancy are more complicated.

Physical Evidence

Physical evidence includes tangible objects. A tangible object would include a murder weapon, clothing or burglary tools in a criminal case. In a civil case, a malfunctioning appliance, tool, instrument or dangerous toy that caused financial loss or physical harm would be evidence. Evidentiary rules require physical evidence be authenticated with testimony that corroborates the source of the object and that is unaltered since the incident.

Documentary Evidence

Documentary evidence includes police reports, financial records, graphs, maps or charts. Documentary evidence must be authenticated by source, date, accuracy and lack of alteration. Certain documentation is required to provide a trail of evidence for test results obtained from physical evidence. Finally, either party must have obtained physical or documentary evidence legally.


Admittance of testimony is subject to rules regarding privileged testimony, expert testimony, opinion and hearsay. Spousal, doctor-patient, attorney-client and spiritual advisor communications are usually inadmissible; however, exceptions exist. An individual who by profession, education or long experience can be considered an expert on a subject at issue can provide expert testimony.


Hearsay evidence is the most contentious aspect of admissible evidence. Evidentiary rules and exceptions for hearsay are complicated. In general, any testimony not based on first-person experience is ruled hearsay and is inadmissible. The most common example of hearsay testimony is a witness relating information told them by another person. The fact of the conversation may be admissible, but the content is inadmissible if used to assert a fact. An exception might be a confession or a deathbed declaration. An opinion must be based on personal knowledge, not some generally held perception.


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