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The Police and criminal evidence act (1984) defines a confession as any statement or action which is wholly or partly adverse to the person making it. It does not have to be in writing, or even in words; in some cases a nod of the head will suffice. It does not have to be made to a 'person in authority' -- a confession overheard by one remand prisoner in the conversation between two others is prima facie admissible. The confession does not even have to be made by the defendant -- a confession made by a person he authorises to speak on his behalf, e.g., a Barrister is admissible.

Strictly speaking, a confession is Hearsay. However, at common law, and now under s.118 of the CJA_2003, a confession is been admissible as proof of the matters stated in it.

A confession is therefore different from a Formal admission, which is a documentary statement of culpability, usually made in writing, and tendered directly into court by the defendant. A formal admission is first-hand evidence, not hearsay.

The reason that confessions are excepted from the hearsay rule is that it is generally felt that a person would not fabricate his own confession. Of course, the person that reports the confession to court might be unreliable, or lying, but that is a matter that goes to the weight of the evidence, not it's admissibility. In a jury trial, it is for the jury to determine how far they are prepared to believe the evidence of a person who reports a confession, when that confession is denined by the defendant himself.

The exception to the exclusionary hearsay rule that is made for confessions only applies to confessions made by the defendant and tendered in evidence by the prosection (and now, under s.128(1) of the CJA2003, tendered by a co-defendant). For a discussion of this, and related issues, see confessions against codefendants.

Under English law, there is no requirement of Corroboration for confessions. Defendants can be convicted, and have been convicted, solely on the basis of their own uncorroborated confessions.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions to the general principle that confessions are reliable. Confessions are sometimes made under duress, so s.76 of PACE provides safeguards against the adminission of improperly-obtained confessions. For more information on this subject, see improperly obtained confessions. Sometimes, the accused overstates his involvement in the offence, for various reasons. More commonly, a confession is misheard, or misunderstood, or attributed to the wrong person. For more information on these issues, see false confession.

A particular problem arises if a statement contains both 'inculpatory' and 'exclupatory' elements. For example, the defendant might state that he was involved in the bank robbery, but he only drove the getaway car, and didn't carry a weapon. The general principle is that, in a 'mixed statement' like this, the whole statement is admissible. However, the jury should be warned that the inculpatory part (that the defendant was involved in the robbery) was likely to be more credible that the exculpatory part (the he only drove the getaway car).