Character Evidence

Generally, under our law of evidence, the general rule is that the character of a party is irrelevant in both civil and criminal proceedings except as provided by the Evidence Act.

The exclusion of character evidence is predicated on its prejudicial nature. In other words, exclusion of character evidence is meant to guard against an ever-ready acceptance of the argument that the defendant or accused must have committed the civil wrong or crime charged because he is the kind of man who would do that kind of thing.

What is meant by the term character?
This is defined in Section 77 as meaning reputation as distinguished from disposition and except as mentioned in the provisions of Section 78 to 87, evidence may be given only of general reputation and not of particular acts by which reputation or disposition is shown.

To prove the reputation of a party, the opinion of a witness concerning the person’s character is irrelevant and ipso facto inadmissible. See the case of R. V. Rowton

See also:- Estoppel; Private Privilege; States Privilege; Presumption and Rebuttable Presumption of law; Facts Judicially Noticed; Opinion Evidence;

Character in Civil trials

The General rule:
By the provision, it’s generally not relevant in civil proceedings except in so far as such character appears from facts otherwise relevant.

The exclusion of it in civil cases can be justified by common sense. If it were to be admissible as the basis for establishing a case or disproving liability practical problems of immense proportion is bound to occur.

For instance, how would a matter be resolved where both parties to a civil suit are equally of sound moral character or are both notorious vandals? Again, of what relevance is the character –good or bad – of the parties to an action in trespass oe determination of title to land? It is for lack of relevance to the just determination of civil cases that character evidence is declared by the Act, as a general rule, to be irrelevant in civil trials.

Exceptions to the General rule:

By section 79 and 80, evidence of the plaintiff’s character may be given when it is in issue and when it affects either liability or measure of damages. Defamation affords a good example here. The character of the plaintiff is in issue in all cases of defamation especially where the defendant relies on the defence of justification. If justification is pleaded, the character of the plaintiff is in issue on the question of liability.

The plaintiff’s character is also relevant in order to determine the quantum of damages he may recover in defamation. Thus section 78 of the Act provides that in civil cases, the fact that the character of any person, is such as to affect the amount of damages which he ought to receive id relevant.

Character Evidence in Criminal Trials

Evidence of Good Character

By virtue of the provision of section 81 of the Act, in criminal proceedings, the fact that the person accused is of good character is relevant, and we may add, ipso facto, admissible.

Evidence of good character of an accused may be given either by the accused himself, or elicited from the prosecution witness through cross-examination, or it may also be obtained through witnesses for the defence. The utilitarian value of this is limited for two reasons.

First, for it to be of any probative value, it must relate to the offence charged. Accordingly, where the accused person is standing trial for an offence involving dishonesty, the relevant evidence of good character will be one showing that he is an honest person.

Similarly, if the charge is one involving moral turpitude, evidence of good character which will be relevant is one showing the accused to be a person of good moral standing. See the case of R. V. Williamson.

The second reason why evidence of good character is of limited value is that if the case against the accused is clearly and strongly established against him, no amount of evidence of good character will demolish such clearly established offence.

Evidence of Bad Character

Section 82 of the Act governs the question of relevance or otherwise of evidence of bad character of an accused. As a general rule, the section in sub-section 1 provides inter alia that:
Evidence of the fact that a defendant is of bad character is inadmissible in criminal proceedings.

In Subsection 2 and 3, exceptions to this general rule are created. By the combined effect of the two sub-sections, evidence of bad character of an accused is relevant and admissible in the following three instances.

  1. When the bad character of the accused person is a fact in issue;
  2. When the accused person has given evidence of his good character;
  3. When the accused may be asked questions to show that he is of bad character in the circumstances mentioned in paragraph C of the proviso to Section 180 of the Act.

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