It should hopefully not surprise anyone that evidence is important in legal disputes. The parties will inevitably say their own versions of what happened, but unless someone has evidence to back up what they’re saying, the outcome will likely disappoint all involved.
Not all evidence is treated equal, however. The evidence in question has to be relevant to the dispute in order to be of interest to a judge, a jury, the lawyers, etc. In this post, I’m going to talk about what “relevant” means in California court cases. The definition, unfortunately, varies from state-to-state. New York has a different definition as does the Federal Court system. Hopefully, though, you can see that the definitions are similar, regardless of the jurisdiction.
In California state court, relevance is defined in California Evidence Code section 210, which provides:
“Relevant evidence” means evidence, including evidence relevant to the credibility of a witness or hearsay declarant, having any tendency in reason to prove or disprove any disputed fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action.”
I bolded the end of that definition to highlight that ‘the tendency within reason to prove or disprove any disputed fact’ is the essence of what relevance means. Relevance is important because it limits what evidence can be admitted. Under section 350 of the California Evidence Code, only relevant evidence is admissible. In the abstract, this should hopefully make sense to everyone. It would be confusing and a waste of time and energy to admit or use evidence that is unrelated (i.e. is not relevant) to what the dispute or case is about. In practice, of course, whether section 350 accomplishes this goal all the time is up for debate. I am sure that some parties lose a case or dispute because the other party was able to successfully argue that certain evidence that should have been kept out was actually admissible and vice-versa. On the average, though, I think section 350 does its job even though it isn’t perfect.
As another example, discovery is usually big component of a California civil case. It probably is in civil cases generally in the United States also. When you’re doing civil discovery, one of the threshold criteria you have to meet is that the information you seek must be relevant to the subject matter in dispute. There are other criteria also (see California Code of Civil Procedure section 2017.010). If the other party is trying to do discovery on you, you may be able to prevent that discovery if you can successfully show that the information sought is not relevant or otherwise doesn’t meet any of the other criteria.
Here’s an example of relevance: Suppose you’re involved in a dispute and one of the questions you’re arguing about is who owns a particular bank account. You contend that person A owns it. The other person in the dispute (for example, person A) says that someone else owns it instead. Suppose you offer an ATM receipt for this account as proof that person A is indeed the owner. It depends on what exactly is on the ATM receipt, of course, but every ATM receipt I have ever seen doesn’t list out the name of the account owner. It will list out the date, the time, the location of the ATM, the amount withdrawn, deposited, transferred, etc during the transaction for which the receipt was issued, etc., but not the account owner’s name. If the account owner’s name is not listed on the ATM receipt, I would argue that the ATM receipt — on its own — is not relevant to the question of who owns the account. Could the ATM receipt be relevant to show account ownership if it was combined with some other piece of evidence? Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends.
On the other hand, a bank statement for the account would be relevant because a bank statement — again, at least in my own experience — would list out the name of the account owner.
One last code section that is important when discussing relevant evidence and that’s section 352 of the California Evidence Code. Section 210 defines what relevance means. Section 350 says that only relevant evidence can be admitted. However, section 350 is limited by section 352 which provides:
The court in its discretion may exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will (a) necessitate undue consumption of time or (b) create substantial danger of undue prejudice, of confusing the issues, or of misleading the jury.
In other words, not all relevant evidence will be admitted. If you read it closely, you’ll notice that section 350 is phrased such that it doesn’t say that all relevant evidence must be admitted. It says that only relevant evidence can be admitted. Relevant evidence that, in the court’s discretion, causes the problems listed in section 352 (e.g. confuses the issues, requires undue time, etc) can be kept out nonetheless.
I hope all of this helps. As always, this post is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the topic of relevance or the code sections that are related to it. Please do your own research as it is possible the statutes I cite above will have changed by the time you read this post. If you have a situation where the California definition of relevance is a concern, please do find a lawyer in your area to discuss it with.
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