Truth and consistency

R v Stirling [2008] SCC 10 (14 March 2008) is an illustration of the common law’s treatment of the admissibility of a witness’s prior consistent statement. The important point has always been that such statements are not admissible as proof of their contents, but only as proof of consistency, and as such they go to the weight that the fact-finder may give to the witness’s testimony.

Central to this appeal is the idea that if the judge had used the prior consistent statement as evidence of its truth, then he would have made a serious error:

“[7] … it is impermissible to assume that because a witness has made the same statement in the past, he or she is more likely to be telling the truth, and any admitted prior consistent statements should not be assessed for the truth of their contents. As was noted in R. v. Divitaris (2004), 188 C.C.C. (3d) 390 (Ont. C.A.), at para. 28, “a concocted statement, repeated on more than one occasion, remains concocted”…”

Further, para 12, the prior statement goes to the witness’s credibility in a general sense; it would be artificial to try to separate out the witness’s credibility on the topic(s) covered in the prior statement from the witness’s credibility generally.

Personally, I wouldn’t have thought that the distinction was that difficult, but Bastarache J, delivering the judgment of the Court, said that such a separation would be “impractical and artificial” (para 12).

It could also be said that the distinction between use of the prior statement for the fact it was made, as opposed to as proof of the truth of what it asserts, is impractical and artificial. It must be acknowledged that this distinction is well established at common law, and (broadly speaking) it applies to prior statements whether they are consistent or inconsistent with the witness’s testimony. It has also, I must admit, been shown to be workable in practice, although arguably more convincingly so in judge-alone cases than where the distinction has to be explained to a jury. But the artificiality of the distinction is easy to see in respect of inconsistent statements: if the fact-finder rejects the witness’s testimony, there is then no evidence – through the witness – on the point if the prior statement is not evidence of its own truth. The prior inconsistent statement cannot then be combined with other evidence in the determination of the relevant fact, even though it has been used to reject the witness’s testimony. Strictly, it also cannot be used to enhance the weight given to other evidence on the point.

It is more sensible to treat prior statements, once they are admissible, and whether they are consistent or inconsistent with the witness’s testimony, as being like any other statements: admissible to prove the truth of what they assert. Constraints on their admissibility are necessary to confine the evidence within manageable bounds, but once admissible the availability of their maker for cross-examination should remove the need for a rule rejecting them as proof of their truth.

So, what of the point made in the quotation from Divitaris in para 7 of Stirling? If the prior statement is alleged to have been a lie, its maker (the witness) can be cross-examined to show that. If cross-examination cannot undermine the truth of the prior statement, why should it not be admissible to prove its truth?

In New Zealand there is currently some uncertainty over whether s 35 of the Evidence Act 2006 has made prior statements evidence as proof of their truth. The Law Commission apparently intended them to be evidence of their truth, but there is a first instance decision holding that they are only proof of the witness’s consistency. My own view is that the section is clearly intended to make prior consistent statements admissible, in certain situations, as proof of their truth. Subsection (2) allows such statements to be used, inter alia, to respond to a challenge to the witness’s accuracy, and subsection (3) refers to circumstantial reliability of the prior consistent statement.

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