Some Thoughts On Teaching Evidence

This week I began teaching Evidence, a required course for the 2Ls. This is my first time teaching the course and yet the rules and principles of evidence seem second nature to me. True, this can partly be explained by my legal career, involving criminal trial and appellate practice, in which I used these principles on a very practical basis. Perhaps, it can also be explained by the fact these rules and principles are generally a matter of common sense and human experience. Certainly, the basic rule of the admissibility of evidence is predicated on that concept: admissible evidence, as a matter of common sense and experience, is relevant when its introduction tends to make a fact more or less probable than the fact would be without it.

However, this initial feeling of comfort and familiarity with the rules and principles of evidence is perhaps why teaching and learning evidence is so crucial to a modern legal education. True, many of the 2Ls in my course will not be trial and appellate lawyers and many of them won’t be obsessively sifting through Supreme Court of Canada judgments to find thematic connections. Rather, evidence is meaningful not because of the rote application of the rules but because of the underlying purpose of these rules which cause us to question the rules and principles themselves. In many ways, this exploration of evidence leads us to re-consider the meaning of law itself.

To make my case, I will refer to some examples from this first week of the course by starting with this concept of “common sense.” Indeed, throughout the trial process, common sense and human experience is a common theme, albeit traditionally it is often perceived through the lens of judicial experience. In support of this contention, read Justice Moldaver’s approach to many criminal law issues in which he applies the “common-sense” paradigm, such as in the 2012 Walle decision or the 2015 Tatton case. I have written further on these decisions here and here. Or, if your bent is more to the civil side, read the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Clements v. Clements where the “but for” test for causation is applied in a “robust common sense fashion” by the majority. However, it is in the consideration of the community sense of how legal constructions are perceived, which seems to be now recognized as a legitimate reference point in judicial interpretation. A previous posting I wrote on this issue considering the SCC case of Anthony-Cook discusses this very point.

Another evidential concept requiring meta-reflection involves the first matter of consideration in the course: what is evidence in the broadest sense, outside of the legal premise. This question leads one to realize that evidence is not just an old shoe or a scrap of paper starting with the words “IOU.” Evidence is about relationships. There are no absolutes in evidence nor are there inherent qualities of an item which makes something, anything, a piece of admissible evidence. These things can only be viewed in relation to the “other.” The shoe is evidence only as it relates to the expert witness who describes the tread as similar to the tread found at the scene of the crime. The scrap of paper becomes evidence of an intention or a promise to pay in a civil action. The above describes just one sort of relationship evidence engenders. There are many more, replete with meaning both inside and outside of the courtroom.

One such outside connection is based on the overarching purpose of evidence as it relates to the truth-seeking function of the trial process. This is a cornerstone of our adversarial system and why we, almost smugly, suggest our form of justice is superior to the investigatory form found in continental Europe. Bringing differing facts to court permits the trier of fact to get at the truth of the matter bringing to light the real events. But what is “truth”? Is it an absolute or is it merely a chimera of what was and is, therefore unattainable? As the historian Carl Becker, a strong proponent of historical relativism, suggested in his provocative piece, “Everyman His Own Historian” published in 1932, the present recollection of the past is really a creation of our own history. Essentially, he argues, as we describe past events we imbed created memories “as may be necessary to orient us in our little world of endeavor.” Are we then constructing a false sense of comfort and security when we suggest our evidentiary rules advance the “truth-seeking” function of our justice system? These are the kind of questions to be asked when faced with the law of evidence.

Another example will make my final point on the expanding properties of thinking about evidence. After discussing the basic rule of admissibility in the second class of the course, we discussed the general exclusionary discretion which permits the trial judge to exclude admissible evidence if the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighs the probative value. The obvious first question arising from this exception to the basic rule of admissibility involves the meaning of “discretion.” What does it mean, in the legal context, to exercise discretion and what are the repercussions of exercising or not exercising such power? Notice, I used the word “power” to describe the exercise of discretion. Notice, I mentioned that using discretion creates an outcome, of which some will cheer and others will decry. Discretion as a power, as the excellent casebook used in the course, Evidence: Principles and Problems edited by Deslisle, Stuart, Tanovich and Dufraimont suggests, can also be revered or jeered. As pointed out in the readings (pages 176-178), discretion can be a tool of the authoritarian state as every tyrant imposes his will through the exercise of discretion. Conversely, discretion can be the mark of the most tolerant and accepting society as it considers an individual as a concept worthy of respect and personhood even in that individual’s darkest moments. Discretion therefore can be the face of compassion or the mask of fear and terror. In the case of exclusion, discretion is a delicate balancing act in which the rule of law acts as the tightrope and the trial judge as the safety net. But, whether this in fact takes place provides us with more questions to consider.

It is true that teaching about evidence can amount to naval gazing with that inward eye, which can leave us in a state of doubt about almost everything. However, this constant drive to re-examine and re-assess our traditional rules and principles is what, in my view, make our rule of law admirable and meaningful. In this light, perhaps talking about evidence in a law classroom is one of the most “relevant and material” journey in a law career.