Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Circumstantial Evidence Definition:

Evidence which may allow a judge or jury to deduce a certain fact from other facts which have been proven.

Related Terms: Evidence, Direct Evidence

Evidence which may allow a trial judge or jury to deduce or logically infer a certain fact from other established facts, which have been proven.

Justice Best in the 1820 case, King v Burdett:

"When one or more things are proved, from which our experience enables us to ascertain that another, not proved, must have happened, we presume that it did happen, as well in criminal as in civil cases."

A presumption of fact.

In some cases, there can be some evidence that can not be proven directly, such as with an eye-witness (known as direct evidence). And yet that evidence may be essential to completely prove a case.

In these instances, the lawyer will complete the evidence by providing the judge or juror with evidence of circumstances from which a juror or judge can logically deduct, or reasonably infer, the fact that cannot be proven directly; it is proven by the evidence of the circumstances; hence, "circumstantial" evidence.

Fingerprints are an example of circumstantial evidence: while there may be no witness to a person’s presence in a certain place, or contact with a certain object, the scientific evidence of someone’s fingerprints is persuasive proof of a person’s presence or contact with an object on which the fingerprint was found.

In 1854, Justice Maule gave this example in R v Burton:

"If a man go into the London Docks sober without means of getting drunk, and comes out of one of the wine cellars very drunk ... I think it would be reasonable evidence that he had stolen some of the wine in that cellar...."

In 2004, the Canadian Judicial Council gave this example:

"(A) witness might say that he or she had seen someone enter the courthouse lobby wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella, both dripping wet. If you believed that witness, you might conclude that it was raining outside, even though the evidence was indirect. Indirect evidence is sometimes called circumstantial evidence."

In a criminal law context, the Alberta Court of Appeal stated, in R v McEwan, that:

"On the one hand it is said that circumstances cannot lie.

"On the other hand it is said that truth is stranger than fiction.

"For my part I cannot but think that there is ordinarily greater certainty in proof by direct than by circumstantial evidence. In the case of direct evidence error may arise from mistake or untruthfulness. In the case of circumstantial evidence the same chances of error arise and there is the additional chance of error in fallacious inference by the Court. But whether I am right or wrong in the view that I have expressed, no useful purpose is to be served by contrasting two methods of proof which are in no sense opposed the one to the other and each of which is in daily use to complement the other.

"Proof by circumstantial evidence being a matter of logical reasoning from facts admitted or established in evidence there is always the danger of the tribunal of fact, whether it be Judge or jury, jumping to conclusions from certain facts without due regard to other facts which are inconsistent with the hypothesis which the first set of facts seems to point to....

"There being no direct evidence, the case must rest, on the circumstantial evidence alone, and the general rule is that to amount to proof such evidence must be not merely consistent with guilt but inconsistent with innocence.

"(T)he Court should be satisfied not only that the circumstances proved are consistent with the commission of the suggested act but that the facts are such as to be inconsistent with any other rational conclusion than that the evil act was in fact committed."

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