Character evidence plays a pivotal role both in civil and criminal law. The conduct and character of a man is used to determine in guilt since centuries. However due to evolution in law and judiciary evidentiary value and reliance on character has decreased, the general principle being it is difficult to establish poor character, further judging by character would mean deviation from facts of the case to an ambiguous and subjective matter.[i] No conviction can be based on the character of a person as it would imply judging the past action or personal life of a person. The term ‘character’ under Section 55 definition breaks down the term into two things which is reputation and disposition, where the former means the opinion that people, in general and the latter means the habitual behavior of a particular person.[ii] Both English and Indian Law does not provide an accurate definition of the term. Character evidence is only admissible in certain cases with conditions and restrictions imposed on the same. Character evidence to be produced could of the parties involved in the suit, witness or even a third party associated with the proceedings. Character evidence of a witness may be given to establish his authenticity or to discredit his testimony, may be of the parties.[iii]
In respect to the character of a person in a suit, it is relevant to establish that the character of the person is relevant to the issue in the case. This section is applicable for civil cases. It excludes evidence of character from being given only for the purpose of rendering probably or improbable any conduct imputed to the party.[iv] When a party’s general character is itself an issue, whether in civil or criminal proceedings, proof must necessarily be received of what general character is. However, if general character is not an issue but is used to support some other issues, that shall be excluded.[v] The general exclusion of character evidence is made on the grounds of public policy, since this might affect the party adversely even though the character evidence may have no relevance in the case, which they possibly cannot be prepared to defend in a Court.[vi] The general principle also states that evidence to prove ‘good character’, to establish improbability of commission of crime is also excluded. The purpose of Court is to judge the matter in front of it not the character of a person.[vii] This section refers only to the character of those party to the suit, not on the witness. It is open for the Court to form its own conclusion as to the character of the party and as to the effect of such character on the conduct imputed to the party.[viii]
This section is applicable in criminal cases, wherein the character of the person accused is relevant.[ix] The simple principle is that when a man has lived an honest life, it is improbable that he will depart from it and do an act inconsistent from it. The principle upon which good character may be proved is that it affords a presumption against the commission of crime. This presumption arises from the improbability. However, character evidence is a very weak form of evidence and for it to have persuasive value, corroboration is imperative.[x]
This section was brought in after 2013 amendments. Due to the growing sexual crime against women and the repetition of the same, it was imperative to draft a section pertaining to the evidence of a character of pervious sexual experiences which may or may not be relevant in certain cases. This section works to aid the victim of rape. This section applies to offences under sections 354 (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 354A (Sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment), 354 B (Assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to disrobe), 354 C (Voyeurism), 354 D (Stalking), 376 (Rape), 376 A (Intercourse by a man with his wife during separation), 376 B (Intercourse by public servant with woman in his custody), 376 C (Intercourse by superintendent of jail, remand home, etc.), 376 D (Gang Rape), 376 E (Punishment for repeat offenders) of India Penal Code and even an attempt to commit such offences will attract the application of this section.[xi] This section makes the character of the victim or her past sexual experiences irrelevant and inadmissible in the Court.
This section states that the poor character of the accused is irrelevant in a criminal proceeding till the point the defendant attempts to establish his good character. Evidence of bad character of the accused until evidence provided to establish good character haven’t been provided, would be irrelevant due to the general inference that the accused is likely to have committed the offence charged.[xii] In the case of Ram Lakhan v. State of Uttar Pradesh, wherein the description of the accused as a law breaker was considered character evidence and therefore disallowed by the Supreme Court.[xiii] However, if the evidence is other relevant it would not be rendered inadmissible under this section because it shows bad character of the accused.[xiv] In the case of Prithvi Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, wherein the murder accused gave no evidence to establish good character, the prosecution is barred from bringing in evidence establishing poor character of the accused.[xv] Evidence can be provided of a particular trait which is provided in the issue.[xvi]
This section states that the character evidence provided in civil cases is such that can affect the amount of damages that are to be received is relevant and admissible in the Court of Law. This section limits the definition of character to reputation and disposition, however evidence provided under section 54 may have general reputation and general disposition.[xvii] Reputation entails what is thought of a person by other or general opinion of others, whereas disposition entails texture of the mind. In civil cases, good character may not be proved in aggravation of damages however, bad character is admissible in mitigation of damages provided that it is justifiable. In cases of defamation general bad reputation of plaintiff may be proved and in cases of breach of promise of marriage general character for immorality is relevant.[xviii] In civil cases, damages for seduction or rape, the evidence pertaining to the character of the accused may be allowed if it can affect the damages to be received.[xix] In the case of Scott v. Sampson, it was held that the character evidence of a person is limited to man’s reputation that is to be proved by general evidence of reputation.[xx]
Frequently Answered Questions:
1. Whether previous convictions are relevant and admissible under Section 54 of the Act?
Previous conviction is not admissible in evidence against the accused except where he is liable to an enhanced, such as under section 75 of IPC.[xxi]
2. How is character evidence used in terms of Witness?
Character evidence is used to damage the credibility of the witness’s statement. This is done through cross examination by the virtue of section 142 of the Indian Evidence Act.
3. Under which civil cases, character evidence is excluded even though it appears to be relevant?
Most civil cases deal with contracts, property disputes among others wherein morality or character has no relevance. Character evidence is only accepted in the cases where it is relevant to the issue. In tortuous claims of negligence or assault the character evidence is not accepted, in civil matters, character evidence may be excluded even if it is accepted under a criminal charge.[xxii]
[i] Vaishnavi Sabhapathi, Relevancy of character evidence in civil and criminal matters, LEGAL BITES (March, 9, 2019 4:00 PM), https://www.legalbites.in/relevancy-character-evidence-civil-criminal-case/#_ftn1.
[ii] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, § 55 (India).
[iii] Vaishnavi Sabhapathi, Relevancy of character evidence in civil and criminal matters, LEGAL BITES (March, 9, 2019 4:00 PM), https://www.legalbites.in/relevancy-character-evidence-civil-criminal-case/#_ftn1.
[iv] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, § 52 (India).
[v] Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, 367-371 (21st Edition, 2009), LexisNexis Butterworth Wadhawa, Nagpur
[vi] The Queen Rowton, 1865 34 Lj (MC) 57.
[vii] Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, 367-371 (21st Edition, 2009), LexisNexis Butterworth Wadhawa, Nagpur
[ix] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, § 53(India).
[x] Bhagwan Swarup v. State of Maharastra, A.I.R 1965 SC 682.
[xi] Indian Penal Code, 1860.
[xii] Mi Myuin v. King-Emperor, 1908 5 LBR 4
[xiii] A.I.R 1977 SC 1936
[xiv] Sarojekumar Chakrabarti v. Emperor, 1932 59 (Cal) 1361.
[xv] 2001 Cri LJ 4424 (All).
[xvi] Bai Chaturi v. State of Gujarat, A.I.R 1960 (Guj) 5.
[xvii] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, § 55 (India).
[xviii] Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, 367-371 (21st Edition, 2009), LexisNexis Butterworth Wadhawa, Nagpur
[xix] Verry v. Watlkins, 1836 7 (C&P) 308.
[xx] 1882 8 (QBD) 49
[xxi] Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 75 (India)
[xxii] Vaishnavi Sabhapathi, Relevancy of character evidence in civil and criminal matters, LEGAL BITES (March, 9, 2019 4:00 PM), https://www.legalbites.in/relevancy-character-evidence-civil-criminal-case/#_ftn1