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.
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.