Imagine that you are looking around in a major clothing store. Out of the corner of your eye you see a sweater that you fancy. After trying it out for size, you decide that you will buy it, and you proceed to pay for it. Then, as you are walking out the entrance of the shop, the theft alarm sounds and the security guard stops you. You let the guard check your paper bag, but lo and behold, he finds another item that was not paid for in the bag. You didn’t steal that item, though, you genuinely have no idea how it got there.
One thing leads to another, and you end up in court, charged with theft. The prosecutor brings in evidence to show that you were known to have taken things without their owners’ permission when you were a young child. What was the prosecutor doing?
What the prosecutor brought in is known as character evidence. Character evidence is a type of evidence that can be submitted to show that a person acted in a particular way on a particular occasion based on the character of the person. To simplify using the short story above, the prosecutor used character evidence to try show that since you have a reputation of stealing things in the past, you may be guilty of the current theft charge.
This article will go on to try to explain how character evidence works in civil and criminal cases, and how relevant they are. The law of evidence is based on concepts such as relevancy and weight of evidence, but those concepts won’t be covered in this article. They will, however, be covered in a separate future article, so please look forward to it.
Having said that, what does character mean?
The legal meaning of “character” is not what we think
The legal definition of the word “character” is provided under the explanations of section 55 of the Evidence Act 1950.
It says that character includes both reputation and disposition. The case of Bhagwan Swarup v State of Maharashtra explains that there is a difference between reputation and disposition, whereby a man may be reputed to be a good man, but in reality he may be a bad person – something like Lex Luthor if you’re familiar with Superman’s arch nemesis. The difference between reputation and disposition is reputation is what others think of you, and disposition is what you really are.
The case of Harbhajan Singh v State of Punjab goes on to explain that reputation is the finalized opinion of a person by the community, which takes time to form.
Now that we know what character means, can character evidence be admitted in civil and criminal cases? Lets take a look at civil cases first.
They’re only relevant in certain civil cases (aka lawsuits)
The rules on whether character evidence is relevant in civil cases are provided in Sections 52 and 55 of the Evidence Act.
Section 52 of the Evidence Act:
Section 55 of the Evidence Act:
To explain the sections, generally, character evidence is irrelevant in civil cases, but there are exceptions. The first is when a person’s character is an issue before the court, and the second is when a person’s character is relevant when assessing damages. Here are a couple examples:
- When a person’s character is a direct issue: An example of this is in the case of Sandison v Malayan Times Ltd., where Mr Sandison brought an action against Malayan Times Ltd for libel (a written statement that is damaging to the person’s reputation). Since the issue here is directly related to Mr. Sandison’s character, character evidence was allowed.
- When a person’s character affects the assessment of damages: “Damages” is a sum of money awarded to a person for loss or injury. Basically, the court can take into account a person’s character when awarding damages, if it is relevant. An example of this is when Ah Chong and Muthu get into a car accident.
Ah Chong sues Muthu for damages, and the it was judged that both sides were contributorily negligent. The judge in the end decides to award less damages to Ah Chong because there is character evidence to show that he was known to be a very aggressive driver. Contributory negligence is when the victim in a tort action was also partly at fault. Read more on contributory negligence here!
Is character evidence relevant in criminal cases, though?
There is good character and bad character evidence in criminal cases
The area of character evidence in criminal cases gets very complex, so we’ll try to give an overview of how it works.
In criminal proceedings, in relatively rare occasions, your character can be called into question, and is specifically classified as good and bad character. For good character, its relevancy is set out in Section 53 of the Evidence Act:
Even though the section provides that good character can be relevant in criminal cases, subsequent court cases such as Bagwan Swarup v State of Maharashta:
Character evidence is “very weak evidence”. Even if good character was relevant, in the face of solid evidence, character evidence cannot override solid evidence. For example: if a person with a reputation of being a humanitarian and has done a lot for charity was caught on CCTV, and he was in the act of killing someone, his good character cannot save him from a guilty judgement.
Now, the relevancy of bad character is provided under section 54 of the Evidence Act.
Section 54 of the Evidence Act:
The section says that the accused’s bad character is irrelevant, unless evidence has been given of good character. What does that mean? This means that the accused’s bad character only becomes relevant when the accused or the defence lawyer gives evidence of the accused’s good character.
How does that work? A practical example would be: Person A is the accused in court. Person A then gives evidence that he is known as a good father. The prosecution may now then bring in evidence to show that person A has been known to physically beat his children, to try to negate (counter) the claim that he is a good father.
We know that part was confusing, so a to make it digestible:
If the defence does not present good character, the law gives them a shield against bad character evidence by the prosecution
If the defence does present good character, shield is now broken, prosecution can bring in bad character evidence
This is provided by Section 54(1) of the Evidence Act
So no, you won’t really do worse in Malaysian courts if you have a bad personality
The function of the courts is to look at the facts of the case, the evidence presented, the laws involved and decide on the case. They’re not really supposed to judge whether you’re a “good” or a “bad” person, so you can be the biggest jerk in the world but if you don’t break the law, your character doesn’t matter. So… being a Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t hurt, but it won’t help you substantially in court either.
To recap, even though there are very specific exceptions, you won’t do worse in courts if you’re known to be a grumpy, foul-mouthed person. But this doesn’t give you an excuse to be a rude in court – that’s a whole different matter altogether!
For this, you could be charged with contempt of court if you behave unreasonably in court, which is separate from the case that is being tried. Contempt of court is essentially anything that disrupts or prevents the courts from doing its job. You can read more about contempt of court here!