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The 'recent complaint' exception is an exception to the general rule that a statement made previously by a witness is not admissible to bolster the credibility of the witness (R v roberts (1942)). At common law, the exception only applies in trials for sexual offences against (presumably) women. If the exception applies, evidence of a previous oral or written statement by the victim may be admitted against the defendant.
The enagage the recent complaint exception, the statement must be made
- voluntarily, and
- at the first reasonable opportunity.
For the statement to be 'voluntary', it need not be made completely out of the blue; what is necessary is that it is not elicited by leading or intimidating questions. For example, in R v osborne (1905) a complaint of a sexual assault made in response to the question why are you going home? was admissible.
Although the complaint must be made at the first reasonable opportunity, it need not be to the first person the victim encounters R V Valentine (1996).
Strictly speaking, a recent complaint, if admissible at all, is admissible only to the extent that it shows the credibility of the witness, and this must be made clear to the jury (R v Islam (1999)). The complaint cannot be used, of itself, to prove the victim's lack of constent to the acts which form the charge. However, in complaints of sexual offences, the issue of consent and the issue of credibility may well be inseparable.
The recent complaint exception is an anomaly, and most authorities take the view that it is a relic from the days when victims of alleged sexual assaults were expected to raise a hue and cry, or be judged to have consented. However, it has recently been put into statutory form by s.120(7) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Under this new provision, the recent complain exception will apply to any offence, not just to sexual offences. Not only will the 'complaint' be evidence of the credibility of the witness, it is admissible as to its facts. This is, in principle, a radical departure from the common-law position, but whether it makes much difference in practice is arguable. Another difference is that, provided that it was not elicited by threat or duress, the fact that the complaint was made in response to a leading question will not make it inadmissible.