In a lawsuit, the parties will present evidence to prove their case, or to disprove their opponents case. The evidence could be a witness testimony, a physical object, or a written document. In the case of a written document, there are usually three requirements that the proponentthe party offering the evidencemust satisfy: authenticity, the best-evidence rule, and the hearsay rule. These requirements all have their own rules in the Federal Rules of Evidence, which apply in federal court and are often similar to state rules of evidence.
Authentication of evidence is governed by Article IX of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rule 901 requires the proponent to produce sufficient evidence to show that the evidence is what she claims it is. That means that a proponent must have evidence about evidence! The rule provides examples of the sorts of evidence that can prove the authenticity of written evidence. One such example is the testimony of a witness who knows what the document is. So, if the evidence is a written contract between the parties, the proponent might have someone who signed the contract testify that it is, in fact, the contract between the parties.
Some kinds of evidence are self-authenticating. That means that the proponent doesnt have to provide extrinsic evidence that what he is offering is what he claims it is. Rule 902 lists what kinds of evidence are self-authenticating. They include newspapers, certified copies of public records, documents that have been acknowledged before a notary public, and government publications.
The second requirement that written evidence must satisfy is the best-evidence rule, which can be found in Article X of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rules 1002 and 1003 provide the general requirements of the best-evidence rule: To prove the contents of a written document, the proponent must offer the original version of the document, but a duplicate can be admitted unless there is genuine question about the originals authenticity. Rule 1001 gives the definitions of original and duplicate. Original usually means the document itself. Duplicate means a copy of the original document that was created through mechanical, photographic, chemical, or electronic meanssomething like a photocopy, but not something copied by hand or written out from memory.
The final requirement for written evidence is that it not be hearsay, or if it is hearsay, that it qualify for an exception that makes it admissible. Article VIII of the Federal Rules of Evidence describe the rules for hearsay. Rule 801 contains the definition of hearsay. Put briefly, hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted by the statement. Rule 802 says that hearsay is not admissible as evidence unless there is a rule or law that says otherwise. Rules 803, 804, and 807 provide such exceptions to the hearsay rule. Some of the exceptions require that the person who made the out-of-court statement is not available to testify, while others can be used regardless of whether that person is available to testify. There are too many exceptions to the hearsay rule to be able to summarize them in a brief blog post, but if youre interested in learning more about them, Rules 803, 804, and 807 are your best places to start.
Only if all three of these requirementsauthenticity, the best-evidence rule, and the hearsay ruleare satisfied will a court accept the proponents written document as evidence in a case. If the proponent fails to meet any one of them, then the evidence will be excluded. For that reason, its important for lawyers to spend time planning how they will prove to the court that any written evidence they offer meets these three requirements.