What is Documentary Evidence?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Documentary evidence is evidence in the form of a recorded document. While many people may think of written documents, recordings in other media are also considered to be evidence of this kind. For example, a photograph or film would be classified as this type of evidence. People must present original copies of documents unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise, in accordance with the best evidence rule. This rule is designed to prevent the introduction of fraudulent or manipulated documents.

Judges must undergo much deliberation in determining what types of evidence may be admissible for trial.
Judges must undergo much deliberation in determining what types of evidence may be admissible for trial.

There are a wide range of reasons why people might wish to introduce documentary evidence for the examination of the judge and jury. For example, if there is a dispute about a contract, bringing the physical contract to court would strongly support a case. Likewise, if a prosecutor is claiming that someone robbed a convenience store, recordings from the store's security system could be used to show the accused inside the store.

When a lawyer wishes to submit documentary evidence, it needs to meet an evidentiary standard. First, it must be shown to be genuine, and the other side can ask to have the evidence examined and authenticated. Sometimes authentication can be relatively easy; a lawyer might ask someone on the stand “did you write this letter,” for instance. In other cases the document may need to be examined by an expert who can determine whether or not it is original and genuine.

Additionally, documentary evidence, just like other evidence, must be relevant. Showing relevance may be very straightforward in some cases, while in others it can be more complicated. Additionally, the evidence must be an original, or there must be a reason why a copy is being shown in court. For example, a lawyer might argue that the original is too fragile and a facsimile is being produced in court to avoid permanent damage to the original.

Examples of documentary evidence can include legal materials like contracts, wills, and other witnessed and written agreements. In addition, recordings of events, letters, and other communications can be used as evidence of this kind in a court of law. When something is entered into evidence it is given a unique identification and the court record notes that something was introduced into evidence. Opposing counsel has an opportunity to challenge documentary evidence which has been introduced in court if there is a belief that it is not genuine or not relevant to the case which is being tried.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@NathanG- Reading the fine print can definitely make a huge difference. I would bet that at least half of the transactions that are made would never happen if people actually read the fine print.

I read what you were saying about how you can now e-sign documents online. I understand that a digital signature could also be used as documentary evidence. My concern is this: Since so many hackers can get all of your information, could they not also e-sign documents, as well? It seems like your actual handwritten signature would be the most reliable evidence if you had to go to court.


@NathanG- I agree with you. We need to ask more questions, and research things more -- use the internet to be more informed, rather than just to make things easier and lazier. Likewise, we need to demand better explanations from people like lenders and agents, especially now that we have so much access to information if they won't give it to us.


@NathanG - I couldn’t agree with you more. I remember when I bought my first house. The mortgage officer was shocked that I took the time to read every word of those documents – and I do mean every word.

She told me that I was the first person to ever do that. She may have been exaggerating, but clearly many people were too happy to sign on the dotted line without actually reading the documents.

That was the biggest financial transaction of my life, and I wasn’t about to sign it away only on the lender’s brief explanations of what it all meant.


I think that in this computer age where we have digital versions of everything, many of us don’t stop to realize the power of a signature.

With that signature, you are agreeing to everything that’s written on that document you signed, whether you understood it or not. That document can then become trial evidence, for better or worse, to be used against you in a court of law.

What’s even more intriguing is the idea that the Internet has not made the power of the signature obsolete. You can now sign things online. Sure, it won’t have your handwriting, but by typing your name in the web page box you are effectively creating a digital signature.

I strongly recommend that you take the time to read the “fine print” before you sign anything. If you don’t understand it – and no one will explain it adequately – walk away.

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