Evidence of good character

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If the defendant in a criminal trial leads evidence that he is a person of good character -- and therefore more credible or less likely to have committed the offence -- then this has certain consequences. This article describes the meta of evidence that is admissible as to the defendant's good character, and the consequences that follow from adducing such evidence.

What evidence of good character is admissible?

The common-law position, as set out in R v rowton (1865) was that the accused could adduce evidence of his general reputation. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 explicity preserves these common-law rules on evidence of reputation but, in fact, the courts have always taken a very flexible attitude to the Rowton principle.

For the purposes of a 'good character direction' to the jury (see below), it may be the case that an absence of criminal convictions is itself sufficient to constitute good character. More controversially, there is even case law to suggest that have convictions for serious, but unrelated, offences may not prevent a defendants' being entitled to be of good character (see, e.g.,R v timson and hales (1993)). However, in the leading case of RVAziz1995, the House of lords held that even if a defendant had no criminal convictions at all, it would not be necessary to direct the jury as to his good character if to do so would be an affront to common-sense. In short, for the purposes of a good character direction,

What is the consequence of adducing evidence of good character?

First, if the judge fails to direct the jury as to the weight that the defendant's good character evidence should be given, his conviction may well be quashed on appeal. This issue is dealt with in the article 'VyeDirection'. In outline, a defendant of good character who has testified in his defence, or made exculpatory statements through other witnesses, is entitled to have the jury directed that his good character adds weight to the credibility of his evidence. In addition, any defendant of good character is entitled to have the jury directed that his good character has an effect on his disposition to commit offences.

This ruling is, of course, of benefit to the defendant.

Second, and of far less benefit to the defendant, is that if the defendant adduces evidence of his good character, then he is said to have 'put is good character in issue' (see putting character in issue). At common law, this was the one circumstance in which the prosecution was entitled to adduce evidence of the accused's propensity to untruthfulfullness (see evidence of untrutfullness) -- although other evidence of bad character could be admitted under the rules on similar fact evidence.

Under s.1(3)(ii) of the criminal evidence act (1898), if a defendant puts his own good character in issue, then the defendant opens himself to cross-examination on his bad character, including previous convictions, if any. There is no limitation on the scope of cross-examination, although the Act provides the judge with a discretion to exlude this evidence, and there is case law to suggestion that cross-examination on minor or long-spent convictions should not be too deep or prolonged.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (which is not fully in force at the time of writing), evidence of the defendant's bad character (including untruthfullness and any other misconduct) is admissible to correct a false impression made by the defendant (s.101(1)). It is envisaged that this provision will encompass a defendants' giving evidence of his good character.

Conclusion

A defendant may adduce evidence of his general good character, and it seems settled that an absence of relevant convictions may in itself constitute good character, at least for the purposes, of a 'good character direction', providing that it would not be an affront to common sense. A defendant of impeccable good character -- a person with no taint of criminality or tendency to dishonesty -- has absolutely nothing to lose by adducing evidence of his good character. Ablemished defendant has a bigger problem, at least until the 2003 Act comes into force, because by adducing such evidence he may have to expose his own character for scrutiny by the jury. Because the 2003 Act essentially removes all barriers to the admissibility of evidence of a defendant's past convictions or untrithfullness, a 'blemished defendant' may have less to lose by adducing good character evidence than under the current law. After all, if his character is going to be exposed to scrutiny anyway, he might as well put some evidence of his good character on the other side of the scales.

UK LAW