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The Complexities of Character Evidence in Legal Proceedings

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In legal proceedings, good or bad character evidence can contribute to the outcome of a case. However, as explained in Episode 78 of the Not On Record Podcast, Evidence: What’s Admissible & What’s Not?, the use of character evidence, especially in the context of child witnesses and domestic assault cases, comes with various limitations and challenges. There are intricacies to character evidence that restrain both the defence and prosecution in terms of context and permissible uses. In this episode of Not On Record we highlight the impact of narrative character evidence as it is often presented during trials and its potential misuse.

Understanding Character Evidence and Its Limitations

Character evidence refers to the public presentation of a person’s previous conduct or actions as circumstantial evidence in a legal case. In most situations, character evidence is inadmissible, as it can create prejudice and unfair assumptions. However, there are specific instances where character evidence may be relevant, such as when it establishes a pattern of behavior or helps in identifying a person.

Defence Limitations on Character Evidence

It is essential to handle character evidence with utmost care.   It is crucial to ensure that when character evidence is used, it serves a clear purpose, rather than being used merely as a narrative. With that said, relying on character evidence to prove innocence can backfire, as it may inadvertently put the defendant’s character on trial, leading to the admission of bad character evidence against them.

Prosecution Limitations on Character Evidence

For prosecutors, the use of character evidence can be tempting, especially in domestic and sexual assault cases. Uncharged allegations or unrelated acts can potentially be presented to establish a pattern of behavior, but this type of evidence is presumptively inadmissible. It risks propensity reasoning, where a person is presumed more likely to commit an offence based on other alleged bad acts, leading to unjust outcomes.

The Need for Clear Admissibility and Limiting Instructions

It is essential to have clear guidelines for admissibility and limiting instructions for character evidence in both defence and prosecution contexts. Prior discreditable conduct and bad character evidence should not be admitted into trial without a strong foundational basis. Additionally, judges must instruct themselves or the jury on how this evidence can be used to prevent improper reasoning or prejudice.

The Danger of Propensity Reasoning and Narrative

Propensity reasoning is a significant concern when handling character evidence. Assuming a person is more likely to commit an offence due to prior uncharged allegations can lead to wrongful convictions. Primarily, the uncharged allegations cannot be assumed to be true and not subject to the same level of scrutiny. At the same time there are exceptions granted for a complainant to explain why he or she did not leave or take defensive action based on the alleged abusive history.

The Complexity of Coercive Control in Domestic Cases

The emergence of coercive control as a potential crime adds complexity to the issue of character evidence in domestic cases. Allegations related to control, financial manipulation, or excessive monitoring can inadvertently open the door to bad character evidence against the complainant. Defence lawyers must be cautious and understand the nuances of what qualifies as admissible evidence in these cases.

As discussed in Episode 78 of the Not On Record Podcast, Evidence: What’s Admissible & What’s Not?, character evidence is a double-edged sword in legal proceedings. While it can be relevant and valuable in some situations, its misuse can lead to severe prejudice and unfair outcomes. Both defence and prosecution must approach character evidence with caution, ensuring it meets strict admissibility criteria and is used for relevant and valid purposes. Clear guidelines and instructions are essential to ensure the fairness and integrity of the judicial process.



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