Relevancy of Character Evidence in Civil and Criminal Case

By | January 15, 2018
Character Evidence - Legal Bites

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The word ‘Character’ denotes “the collective qualities or characteristics especially mental and moral that distinguish a person or thing. Character differs from conduct.

And ‘Conduct’ is a stray act, it is a single act, done on one occasion while a character is a continuous act and there is a repetition of the same act.

The character and conduct of people play a very important role in our day to day lives, people act and react and go about their daily lives based on their assumptions of what other people will do. Thus, when a court is asked to judge a person’s conduct on a particular occasion it may become pertinent to question the person’s conduct. [1]

In our law the word Character has no sure meaning, Under Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Explanation under Section 55 defines it as the word “character” includes both reputation and disposition; but (except as provided in section 54), evidence may be given only of general reputation and general disposition, and not of particular acts by which reputation or disposition were shown.

The definition basically constricts down the word character into two things which is reputation and disposition, where the former means the opinion that people, in general, have about someone or something, or how much respect or admiration someone or something receives, based on past behaviour or character [2] and the latter means the habitual behaviour of a particular person.

As of the law, the Character evidence is admissible with certain conditions and restrictions.

Relevancy of Character Evidence in Civil Cases

Section 52 of Evidence Act, in civil cases, character to prove conduct imputed, irrelevant.

The general rule is that in civil cases, person’s character is irrelevant to show such person’s conduct is predictable or not.

Thus the general principle is that a party cannot give evidence of his good character for the purpose of showing that it is unlikely that he should be guilty of the conduct charged to him.

This principle was laid down in the year 1791 in Attorney General v. Bowman [3], where the defendant was tried in a penal action, not a criminal prosecution, for keeping false weights and for offering to corrupt an officer. He called a witness to testify that he was a man of good character and conduct.

But EYRE, C.B. refused to admit the evidence as it was a civil suit. It was not a direct prosecution of crime, but only for penalty.

Relevancy of Character Evidence in Criminal Cases

Section 53 In Criminal cases previous good character relevant

As per section 53 of Evidence Act, in criminal cases, the fact that the person accused is of a good character is relevant.

Thus every accused person can give evidence of the fact that he is a man of good character.

Section 53A Evidence of a character of previous sexual experiences not relevant in certain cases.

This section has been brought in by the amendment of 2013. Where the growing crimes of rape necessitated some changes in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and Indian Evidence Act, 1872.

This section is one such method of protecting the victim of rape.

This section applies to the prosecutions of 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.

This section applies even to attempt to commit such offenses.

This section declares irrelevant the evidence of the character of the victim of rape or her previous sexual experiences with any person, then declares that the evidence of her character or her previous sexual experience with any person is irrelevant on the quality of issue of such consent.

Section 54 Previous bad character not relevant, except in reply.

The section provides that, the prosecution cannot lead with the evidence of the bad character of the accused as a part of the original case, they can produce evidence of bad character only in reply to rebut when the accused produces evidence of his good character.

Explanation 1 states that this section doesn’t apply to the cases where the fact in issue is the bad character of the person.

For example, In case of divorce, wife files case of divorce on the ground of cruelty by husband, in these cases the section doesn’t apply, as the issue is the character of the husband whether he was cruel towards her or not.

Explanation 2 states a previous conviction is relevant as evidence of bad character.

Section 55 Character as to affecting damages

The principle laid down by the section 55 if the character of a person is to affect the amount of damages he should receive the evidence of character becomes relevant.

While evidence of bad character of the plaintiff may be given in order to mitigate the extent of damages, evidence of good character may not be given in order to increase the extent of liability.

This is mostly used in cases of defamation when a person causes injury to another’s reputation and damages are calculated on the basis of the person’s character.

Explanation states that, in sections 52, 53, 54 and 55, the word “character” includes both reputation and disposition; but, [except as provided in section 54], evidence may be given only of general reputation and general disposition, and not of particular acts by which reputation or disposition was shown.

Disposition means to the inherent qualities of a person and the qualities that a person acquires through their upbringing, education or material conditions in life.

Reputation refers to the general estimation with which a person is held.  When you say that a person has a reputation you are talking about the general estimation in which a person is held, for example, one may have the reputation of being a liar.  So people generally perceives of him is to be a person who tells untruth.

In the case of Scott V. Sampson [4], held that the word ‘character’ for this purpose is taken to mean a man’s reputation, and the evidence of character was required to be confined only to “general evidence of reputation”.

Evidence of a person’s good or bad character can be given only by those who know him and have had dealings with him, for his character is the esteem in which he is held by others who know him, and are in a position to judge his worth.[5]

– Vaishnavi Sabhapathi

Content Writer @ Legal Bites




[3] (1791) 2 Bos. & P.532 : 126 E.R. 1423

[4] (1882) 8 QBD 49

[5] See Lord Dennings in Plato Films Ltd v Spidel, (1961) A.C. 1090 at p.1137