Courts Urged to Lift Ban on Hearsay Evidence
Stephen Ward Legal Affairs Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
Legal Affairs Correspondent
Government advisers are recommending that second-hand hearsay evidence should be allowed in trials - a radical change to a basic principle of law.
The Law Commission is still considering whether to recommend an even more controversial step of allowing a defendant's previous convictions to be disclosed to a jury.
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard is already under pressure from police to change what they see as technicalities which allow increasing numbers of defendants to go free.
Although hearsay is allowed in other countries, in England it is a basic taboo. Lawyers learn in their first week at college that a witness, Mr Smith, must not tell a court that his friend Mr Jones had told him he saw the defendant stealing a watch. It is thought unfair because Mr Jones is not available to be cross-examined, so a jury cannot reasonably decide whether to believe him. The same rule applies to documents if their author is not in court to verify them.
The radical change will be recommended today in a Law Commission consultation paper, ordered by Mr Howard in April 1994. The commissioners - a panel of experienced lawyers chaired by a judge - are unimpeachably apolitical, and insist the changes would be in the interests of justice, potentially aiding both prosecution and defence. They believe hearsay evidence should be admitted as long as there is a good reason why the "second-hand" witness cannot be in court in person.
The commissioners say juries should be told clearly to give less weight to hearsay evidence than to direct evidence, but that both should be heard. …