Evidence where the information adduced is not direct evidence from the actual witness, but rather via a third party source. For example if a witness says “John told me that …” So a question that is in effect, “what did John tell you” calls for hearsay. The main point is that “second hand” information is often inaccurate, and someone wants to what “John knows” they should “ask John.”
Hearsay is generally not allowed as evidence in common law courts – although there are a large number of hearsay exceptions that allow it to be introduced if it meets their criteria. The origin of the hearsay rule was common law judges’ concern that lay-juries (non-lawyers) would not did not weigh such testimony’s reliability properly. The major exceptions are
- business records exception – possibly the most important, it allows the introduction of business records that are regularly maintained in the ordinary course of business to show evidence that would otherwise be hearsay, such as say a “testing log”;
- excited utterances, something the person exclaimed in excitement;
- a present sense impression (as in Bob said “it’s hot in here”);
- present state of mind (he/she said “I think that…”);
- prior inconsistent statements – statements that a witness made that contradict the story they now tell – US federal courts do not normally recognize this exception;
- declarations against interest/admission of a crime/confessions – i.e., statements where the person being quoted has said something that would subject them to adverse consequences. Usually this only applies when the witness is unavailable;
- Dying declarations – something a dying witness says, knowing that they are soon to die and unlikely to be available to provide testimony.
The hearsay rule is possible the most complex in evidence because of the wide array of exceptions. See Objection!