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Kinds of Evidence Offered in Court

Common law in Canada has very strict rules about what can be introduced as evidence when trying to establish the guilt or innocence of a person. Different kinds of evidence are evaluated differently -- some evidence, in other words, is better than others, as far as a court of law is concerned. Here is an overview of four types of evidence that are commonly presented in a criminal trial. They are organized here from the weakest form of evidence that might be presented in criminal trial in Canada today, to the strongest.

Hearsay or second-hand evidence

If you are presenting evidence at a criminal trial and you report what someone else has said, it will generally not be accepted as evidence by the judge. Evidence of something that you did not see yourself as a witness is called hearsay evidence, and is not admissible in a trial of law. The court generally believes that evidence should be given directly by the person who witnessed the event or behaviour. Only those who are eye-witnesses to a relevant act, in other words, should be called as sworn witnesses in the trial. Because it is not direct evidence, hearsay evidence is sometimes called “second-hand evidence” or “rumour.”

However, if you have heard the accused describe what he or she claims to have done (i.e., confess to a crime), or if you heard the accused talk about his or her intention to commit a crime, that may be accepted as direct evidence of the person’s beliefs or intentions and is not hearsay evidence about what she really did.

For more information about hearsay evidence, consult the following sources:

Duhaime’s Canadian Law Dictionary


Character evidence

While it seems strange to us, when someone was committed of a crime before the eighteenth century (1700s), criminal courts paid little attention to the specific pieces of evidence relating to the crime itself; even if it were available, they would have had little interest in “forensic evidence” of the type our courts rely on so heavily today. Instead of relying on specific pieces of evidence to decide whether someone committed a crime, the court instead relied heavily on evidence of general good character to decide whether or not the person was of such bad character that he or she might have committed such a crime. This kind of evidence is not considered good enough to ensure a conviction in today’s criminal courts.

We still have the remains of this concern with good character in the criminal system today. Someone claiming their innocence when charged with a crime might call “character witnesses” during the trial to attest to their previously good character and behaviour.

For more about character witnesses, consult the following source:

The Citizens Information Online, Ireland

Circumstantial evidence

Circumstantial evidence is the evidence about the circumstances or surroundings in which the crime occurred. It does not actually prove that the accused person committed the crime, but it suggests that the link is possible. Suppose a detective finds the fingerprints of an accused person on the safe from which jewels were stolen. This evidence links the person to the safe -- it indicates that the person touched the safe -- but it doesn’t prove the person opened the safe or stole the jewels.

For more on circumstantial evidence, consult the following source:

Duhaime’s Canadian Law Dictionary

Direct evidence

Direct evidence presented at a trial can be an artifact (like a signed contract or the murder weapon), sometimes called “real evidence”. Presenting evidence about the murder weapon would mean establishing that this was the object that caused the injuries leading to the victim’s death. It would not necessarily establish who used the object, but it would be direct evidence about what brought about the death.

More commonly, direct evidence is presented in spoken form, called testimony. Testimony consists of the witness’s descriptions, opinions, or inferences that are reasonably based on his or her own perceptions of the “facts”. The witness should be an eye-witness to events relating to the crime or incident at hand. Direct observations are considered among the best kind of evidence, particularly when they are supported by other people’s observations. Together, these provide the evidence used to persuade the judge and/or jury of the “true facts” in the case.