Real evidence

Introduction

Real evidence is material, tangible evidence such as an object, a tape recording, a computer printout or a photograph. It is evidence that the court can examine for itself. Generally, real evidence does not stand alone, and the court will hear evidence from a witness (often an expert witness) explaining the significance or the relevance of the real evidence.

Some examples of real evidence are covered in this document.

Types of real evidence

Material objects

An example of a material object in a murder case is the murder weapon. This is a piece of real evidence, which can be introduced in court. Sometimes, it is impossible to produce a material object at trial because it has been destroyed or lost. Photographs, replicas or the oral evidence of someone who has seen the object may be allowed instead.

Sometimes, if the material object cannot be shown in court a 'view' or an out-of-court inspection can be carried out. See the section on ‘Out-of-court inspection’ below for more information about this.

Photographs

Photographs can be introduced as evidence of what they show. For example, in a murder trial, photographs can be introduced as evidence of the position and state of the deceased's body when it was found.

A photograph’s authenticity must be proven before it can be admitted as evidence. The photographer must prove that they took the photograph, and the person who processed it must make a statement saying that the photograph is untouched.

Photographs do not need to be taken by a professional photographer to be admitted as evidence. For example, in a civil case, photographs you have taken of damage done to your car in a road traffic accident will be allowed (as long as you are available to give evidence in court about when and how you took the photographs).

Video recordings

Increasingly, incidents or crimes are captured and recorded by video cameras or CCTV. These recordings are accepted in court as real evidence. If evidence of a crime is recorded on a street or shop camera, the Gardaí are obliged to seize and keep the recording for a reasonable time, even if they do not intend to use it as part of the prosecution case.

In order to use video recordings as evidence, the prosecution must prove that the video recording is authentic or genuine. The prosecution must explain how and why the recording was made and who had the recording after it was made. The defence can object on these grounds, and if they do, it is up to the judge to decide whether to allow the recording as evidence.

If the Gardaí decide not to use a recording as evidence at trial, the prosecution or Gardaí must notify the defence that the recording exists. They must also give the defence advance notice if they decide to destroy the recording. Because even though the recording may not be of use to the prosecution, it may help the accused prove they were not at the scene of the crime.

While there is a duty on the Gardaí to collect video evidence, they do not have to go to extreme lengths to do so. For example, the Gardaí would not need to collect every piece of video evidence on O’Connell Street in Dublin if there was a theft from a shop on the street.

Out-of-court inspection

A view is an out-of-court inspection of a place or an object that can’t be brought into court. For example, the judge (and the jury if it is a criminal case) and the people involved in the case can leave the court to inspect a large machine or a motor vehicle that is of importance to the case.

A view is admissible as evidence in a criminal case or a civil case. However, in most cases, it is not necessary to leave the court to examine a place or an object as a photograph or a video recording of the place or object will be accepted in court.

A person’s appearance and behaviour

A person’s physical appearance and their characteristics can be used as real evidence. For example, in a personal injuries case the injured person can show the judge a scar they got as a result of the incident. Animals can also be produced to assess their temperament.

The demeanour of a witness when giving oral evidence is considered real evidence. The judge can take this into account when deciding if this evidence is credible.

Forensic evidence

Forensic evidence is material or traces of material that have been analysed by a forensic science laboratory. Forensic evidence is collected by members of the Gardaí who are specially trained to do this. They must ensure that samples are not compromised or contaminated when they are collected and stored.

Forensic science laboratories closely examine materials such as paint, glass, soil, hair, fibres, firearm residues, fire accelerants and footprint samples. These samples may have been taken from the scene of the crime or may have been found on thevictim or the suspect.

Forensic evidence has many uses, for instance:

  • The presence of a material in itself may be significant, for example, the presence of firearms residue on a suspect's clothes
  • Samples of materials may be matched, for example, fibres found on the suspect's jumper match the victim's blouse
  • Unique marks may be identified, for example, footprints

Forensic evidence tends to prove that a suspect was at the scene of the crime. For example, if a window was broken by a burglar to get into a house, the suspect's clothing will be examined for small glass fragments. The window will also be examined for fibres that may have come from the burglar's clothing. For further information on this topic see our document on DNA evidence.

When forensic evidence is introduced in court, it will usually be explained by an expert - a forensic scientist. The scientist will explain what was done with the sample and how it was analysed. The scientist will then explain the laboratory's findings.

Further information

You should get legal advice for more detailed information on this.

Page edited: 25 April 2019