in its most general and oldest meaning is an out of court statement used to establish the facts which that statement asserts.
Hearsay is generally not admissible as evidence in common law
courts, but is the rules for admissibility are more relaxed in court systems based on the civil law
The reason for the hearsay rule is that the credibility of the other witnesses cannot be checked by the person against whom the testimony is being proffered. As well it usually has not been checked by the person reporting what they have heard and it may even be double hearsay (hearsay within hearsay).
Today the hearsay rule has developed into a complex set of evidentiary rules of admissibility that are used to prevent various types of statements and documents from being entered into evidence in various types of court proceedings, though they may be allowed in other types of alternative dispute resolution. Generally speaking hearsay is a concept that developed in the common law legal tradition in the context of the adversarial system of decision making.
While hearsay is generally inadmissible as evidence in legal proceedings such as litigation there are many exceptions, such as (these are just a few, [more need to be added]):
- dying utterances: often depicted in movies; the police officer asks the person on their death bed, "Who did it" and the victim replies, "The butler did it");
- admissions against interest: someone makes an admission, such a someone confessing to a crime
- the business records exception: business records created during the ordinary course of business are considered reliable and can usually be brought in under this exception if the proper foundation is laid when the evidence is introduced into evidence. In this usage, business records has a very broad meaning and includes police records, or records of non-profit organizations.
- prior testimony: if the testimony was given under oath and the party against whom the testimony is being proffered was present and had the opportunity to cross examine the witness at that time. Often used to enter depositions into the court record at trial.
Also a statement is not hearsay when it is not used to prove the statement that it asserts. For example, a Y screaming that X shot B, cannot be used to establish that X shot B, but can be introduced to show Y's state of mind.
In some jurisdictions such as Canada the limited exceptions format to the rule have been replaced by a more general theory of exceptions to the hearsay rule that allows courts to decide when documents, testimony or other evidentiary proof can be used that might not otherwise be considered. [more can be written about this].
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