By Neha Choudhary
Published on August 25, 2021 13:06 IST
There have been various pronouncements in India to show the relevance of circumstantial evidence to conclude criminal as well as civil cases concerning the Indian Evidence Act. The evidence in every case stands essentially to prove one’s case and holds importance to prove the purpose of the case. The parties of a particular case whether criminal or civil are required to present certain evidence to prove their side of the case and moreover, in certain criminal cases, the burden of proof lies on the defaulting party and it is paramount for them to present the evidence.
Hence, it is not necessary every time that the evidence that is applicable for the case are direct in nature that would precisely prove the innocence or mens rea of the criminal and thus Indian Evidence law provides the prevailing parties of the case to substantiate which are direct or indirect, oral or documented, etc. However, this has not been explicitly mentioned in the statute yet can be understood by various pronouncements and interpretations by the jurists and solicitors.
Likewise, various other countries follow the implied rule of evidence to prove one’s case and thus follow circumstantial evidence and various other kinds of evidence that are permissible to conclude their case.
How Circumstantial Evidence is dealt with in the United Kingdom?
In the United Kingdom, the doctrine of admissibility of certain evidence is received by the judicial court. This principle determines whether particular evidence can be admissible in a court of law and whether the justice system would approve for the relevancy of the evidence. Thus it has to be determined before presenting any evidence before the court whether it would be admissible or inadmissible.
The central principle is the relevancy of the evidence and thus all the irrelevant evidence would be unacceptable and might be objectionable. However, if the particular evidence even if it is relevant falls outside the ambit of the ‘exclusionary rules of evidence’ according to the statute, it is probable to be inadmissible.
Under International Law, either the rules of evidence are the ones accepted by the concerned parties depending on a particular case or if such evidence is explicitly not mentioned, then the rules which “have been adopted and applied in practice by international tribunals” would be admissible.
The International Court of Justice, while defining the rule of evidence, has mentioned that “in dealing with questions of evidence, the Court proceeds upon the basis that its decision will be based upon the facts occurring up to the close of the oral proceedings on the merits of the case.” Moreover, it has also been mentioned that for any court to provide an informed decision, the court shall “make all arrangements connected with the taking of evidence” which has been specified under Article 48 of the statute by International Law of Justice.
The general provisions and the principle of admissibility of evidence in the court are determined by the court itself based on the uniqueness and circumstances of each case through which, the relevancy of direct or circumstantial evidence can be proved. There are certain kinds of evidence that are presented before justice to prove a particular case.
“A circumstantial case is one which depends for its cogency on the unlikelihood of coincidence: circumstantial evidence works by cumulatively, in geometrical progression, eliminating other possibilities”. In other words, circumstantial evidence is evidence that is not directly linked to the case like direct evidence but it rationally proves the case through the circumstances and events of the case. Circumstantial evidence is not necessarily weaker than direct evidence if several circumstances together can lead the court or a jury to a guilty verdict.
In the case of R Vs Exall[i],it has been held that “One strand of a cord might be insufficient to sustain the weight, but three-stranded together may be quite sufficient of strength. Thus, it may be circumstantial evidence – there may be a combination of circumstances no one of which would raise a reasonable conviction or more than mere suspicion; but the whole, taken together, may create a strong conclusion of guilty, that is, with as much certainty as human affairs can require or admit of”
Moreover, various decisions of the court established the principles that govern the burden of proof, admissibility of evidence, etc.
One such pronouncement is the Case of Corfu Channel which laid down the procedure related to circumstantial and secretive evidence. However, the admissibility of the circumstantial evidence can be understood through the evolution established by the precedents and the interpretations through which various International Courts interpreted the general provisions and statutes.
In this case, the United Kingdom brought the case against Albania as holding Albania responsible for the mines between Albania and Greece, the Corfu channel. Thus, circumstantial evidence was used to prove Albania’s awareness of the presence of mines. The court of international law thus relied on indirect evidence and brought the action for the concerned parties.[ii]
Through the pronouncement, it was deemed to be concluded referring the acceptance of the circumstantial evidence, that for the circumstantial evidence to be acceptable, shall run parallel to the direct evidence available in respect to the facts of the case and also the direct evidence must be under the private control of the other party and thus are not accessible.
However, there was a contrast shown in the Nicaragua case[iii] where it was stated that circumstantial evidence is not enough to conclude a case, in the absence of direct evidence. Unlike the Corfu case, the circumstantial evidence presented in any other case were hardly relied upon, like in the Case of Genocide Convention[iv], it was proved through the circumstantial evidence that Serbia itself had committed genocide but without referring to the indirect evidence, the court imposed no liability based on the evidence and thus held that Serbia failed to prevent and punish the acts of genocide.
Circumstantial evidence can be understood through an example: A hears a loud voice from the neighbor’s house, he went to investigate. Then he saw a man (David) acting suspiciously running down the street, he apprehends the man. It was further discovered that David has jewelry, which belongs to a local house that has been burgled. In this case, there is no direct evidence that proves David to be a criminal who stole the jewelry. However, his presence at that place at the time of the crime and possession of the stolen property is considered as circumstantial evidence that would prove that David is a culprit and thus shall be convicted.
Understanding and determining the rule of principle regarding the circumstantial evidence, it has been held that “narrowly examined, if only because evidence of this kind may be fabricated to cast suspicion on another. It is also necessary before drawing the inference of the accused’s guilt from circumstantial evidence to be sure that there are no other co-existing circumstances which would weaken or destroy the inference.”
In another decision of the court in the United Kingdom, it has been said that “The risk of injustice that a circumstantial evidence direction is designed to confront is that (1) speculation might become a substitute for the drawing of a sure inference of guilt and (2) the jury will neglect to take account of evidence that, if accepted, tends to diminish or even to exclude the inference of guilt.”
However, as the House of Lords explained in McGreevy, “circumstantial evidence does not fall into any special category that requires a special direction as to the burden and standard of proof. The ultimate question for the jury is the same whether the evidence is direct or indirect: Has the prosecution proved upon all the evidence so that the jury is sure that the defendant is guilty? It is the task of the trial judge to consider how best to assist the jury to reach a true verdict according to the evidence.” [v]
How Circumstantial Evidence is dealt with in the United States of America?
The principle that applies in the United States of America in reference to the evidence law that governs the evidence required to prove a suit is called Federal Rules of Evidence. In each state in America, the prevailing evidence laws differ from state to state, as some rules had been adopted without verification in some states only. However, certain states revised their local laws and thus partially follow the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Moreover, in a nutshell, the evidence that is mostly considered to be followed in a suit of law is direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence as described by the statute is the evidence that comes directly from the witness according to what they have seen and thus supports the fact without any inference.
Circumstantial evidence is the evidence that gives a reasonable link through the events and circumstances of the case to draw a conclusion. Moreover, testimony referring to any event before or after the crime has been committed is considered a shred of circumstantial evidence. Thus, before the judgment is to be pronounced, both direct and indirect evidence are given importance and are admissible and neither of them is neglected based on irrelevancy, if not proved.
The clear outline of circumstantial and direct evidence can be understood with an example: if A has been seen running from the crime scene with a knife and B testifies the same, then it would be considered as circumstantial evidence as B has not witnessed A committing the crime of murder. In contrast, if B would have seen A committing the crime of murder and then escaping with the knife in hand, it would be considered as direct evidence.
Thus both direct and circumstantial evidence have equal importance in the courts of the United States of America and therefore, a person can be convicted on the sole basis of circumstantial evidence if it holds relevancy. In the criminal case, the prosecution relies on circumstantial evidence where the defense response with the cast doubts of circumstantial proof itself which has to be proven to draw the inference. The second response is reasonable conclusions drawn from the circumstantial evidence, and one such conclusion would be whether the accused is guilty or not.
In the case of People Vs Sanchez and People Vs Ford, it has been mentioned that “While it is not necessary that the words ‘moral certainty’ be used when the evidence is circumstantial the jury should be instructed in substance that it must appear that the inference of guilt is the only one that can fairly and reasonably be drawn from the facts and that the evidence excludes beyond a reasonable doubt every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”
However, circumstantial evidence is generally admissible in courts unless the link between the fact and the inference is too weak to help in deciding the case. Thus there are many convictions for various crimes where the case rests solely on circumstantial evidence.
Moreover, it has been observed many times that the cases of circumstantial evidence get very complicated because of the frauds and the way prosecutors frame the charges to sway a jury his or her way to gain a conviction and thus has majorly affected those who cannot afford adequate legal counsel as the case gets more complex and expensive as it gradually becomes difficult to be proved not guilty for a false allegation and defend yourself.
Furthermore, circumstantial evidence under the Federal Rules of Evidence includes the accused’s resistance to arrest, motive, or opportunity to commit a crime, present at that time and place, contradictions, or denials. Additionally, scientific evidence can also be considered as circumstantial evidence as it links circumstance and facts of the case. There have been various cases, where direct evidence does not exist and the jury relies on the circumstantial evidence and thus draws a conclusion to convict or acquit the accused.
It has also been stated by the U.S Supreme Court that “circumstantial evidence is intrinsically no different from testimonial [direct] evidence. Thus, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence has little practical effect in the presentation or admissibility of evidence in trials.”[vi]
The principle of evidence determines that whether particular evidence would be relevant or irrelevant in helping to prove the conviction and thus establishes the fact that whether a conclusion can be drawn on the basis of such evidence or not. The judicial system working in the countries like India, the USA, or the UK has the principle of evidence that governs the types of evidence that hold relevancy for the case to be proved. However, the statutes don’t explicitly mention the types of evidence but can be interpreted through various pronouncements.
In India, the concept of circumstantial evidence has not been drawn from the statute but through interpretations and precedents. In the US, both direct and indirect evidence hold specific importance and stand no difference and thus decisions can be made solely based on the circumstantial evidence. In the courts of the United Kingdom, the case is dealt with according to the courts and previous decisions held by the courts and thus admissibility of the evidence is based on the pronouncements, relevancy, and decisions of the court on the present suit.
[i]R Vs Exall,  EWCA Civ 334
[ii]United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland v. Albania, I.C.J., 1949 1.C.J.4
[iii]Republic of Nicaragua Vs The United States of America, 1986 I.C.J. 14
[iv]Genocide Convention Case, ICJ GL No 91
[v]The Queen Vs Kelly,  EWCA Crim 817
[vi]Holland Vs the United States, 348 U.S. 121, 75 S. Ct. 127, 99 L. Ed. 150