Hearsay in civil proceedings

8.214 The hearsay rule and its exceptions are of much more practical importance in criminal than in civil proceedings. Consultations and submissions indicate that the hearsay rule is often ignored in civil proceedings.

8.215 In the United Kingdom, the hearsay rule was largely abolished in civil proceedings by the Civil Evidence Act 1995 (UK).[249] Section 1 of the Civil Evidence Act states:

(1) In civil proceedings evidence shall not be excluded on the ground that it is hearsay.

(2) In this Act—

(a) ‘hearsay’ means a statement made otherwise than by a person while giving oral evidence in the proceedings which is tendered as evidence of the matters stated; and

(b) references to hearsay include hearsay of whatever degree.

8.216 Under the United Kingdom legislation, the party proposing to adduce hearsay evidence must provide notice of that fact to the other party.[250] The Act also contains detailed provisions setting out considerations relevant to the weighing of hearsay evidence by the court.[251]

8.217 The ALRC requested comments on whether the uniform Evidence Acts might be reformed to abolish the hearsay rule for civil proceedings or to allow parties to agree that the rule not apply to proceedings between the parties.[252] One starting point for such a reform might be s 190 of the uniform Evidence Acts. This provision states that the court may dispense with the application of certain rules of evidence,[253] but only if the parties consent.[254] In a civil proceeding, the court may order that certain provisions of the legislation do not apply to evidence if:

(a) the matter to which the evidence relates is not genuinely in dispute; or

(b) the application of those provisions would cause or involve unnecessary expense or delay.[255]

8.218 While abolition of the hearsay rules in civil proceedings has some support, [256] in consultations the abolition of hearsay rules in civil proceedings was generally opposed. It is considered that the breadth of the exceptions to the hearsay rule and the waiver provisions are sufficient to allow for appropriate use of hearsay evidence. One NSW District Court judge comments:

The hearsay provisions are, in my view, basic to the requirement of fairness in the courts, despite the criticisms that have been levelled at them. In some situations it is conceivable that all parties might consent to allow the admission of hearsay evidence, but in my view these would be relatively rare. In my submission it is better that the Act remain as it is.[257]

8.219 In addition, some judges oppose the abolition of the hearsay rule on case management grounds. That is, leaving aside concerns about the reliability of evidence, liberalising the admission of hearsay evidence could add to the volume of evidence before the court, potentially prolonging trials and increasing costs.

8.220 The Commissions propose no change to the uniform Evidence Acts to abolish the hearsay rule for civil proceedings, or to provide that the rule does not apply to proceedings between parties if the parties so agree. Parties not wishing to raise hearsay objections need not raise them. Beyond that, it is not apparent that it is desirable or necessary to abolish the hearsay rule as it applies in civil proceedings. A step of that kind would require a level of response to the question raised in IP 28 that was not received.

[249] See C Tapper, Cross and Tapper on Evidence (10th ed, 2004), 615–618.

[250]Civil Evidence Act 1995 (UK) s 2.

[251]Ibid s 4.

[252]Australian Law Reform Commission, Review of the Evidence Act 1995, IP 28 (2004), [5.96].

[253]Uniform Evidence Acts s 190(1). The following provisions may be waived, in relation to particular evidence or generally: Divs 3, 4 or 5 of Pts 2.1, 2.2 or 2.3; or Pts 3.2 to 3.8. (Part numbers differ slightly in the Tasmanian legislation.)

[254] Section 190(2) contains safeguards with regard to the consent of a defendant in criminal proceedings.

[255]Uniform Evidence Acts s 190(3).

[256]C Ying, Submission E 88, 16 September 2005.

[257]Confidential, Submission E 31, 22 February 2005. See also P Greenwood, Consultation, Sydney, 11 March 2005.