What is the Indian Evidence Act?

M. Lupica

The Indian Evidence Act of 1872 is a piece of Indian legislation that was developed with the purpose of streamlining laws of evidence across the British Indian Empire, which encompassed both modern day India and Pakistan. Prior to this collection of statutes, which was first drafted by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, the different areas of India each had their own rules of evidence governing disputes. In most cases, these rules applied to each individual differently based on the class and religious belief of the individual being prosecuted. The Indian Evidence Act eliminated those disparities.

Even though India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Indian Evidence Act remains in effect there.
Even though India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Indian Evidence Act remains in effect there.

The purpose of the Indian Evidence Act was to reform the rules of evidence as they pertained to Indian citizens, who at the time were under the rule of the British Empire. Rules of evidence are the procedures that govern litigation and prosecution within a given court. Generally, the aim of these rules is to provide a fair process for the accused to defend himself or herself from any charges that have been levied. Prior to the Indian Evidence Act, disparate rules were applied to people in higher classes and better regarded religious groups than those who were looked upon less favorably by Indian society. This disparity resulted in unfairness to those in the lower class.

The Indian Evidence Act was first conceived in the 1850s when Sir Henry Summer Maine was tapped to prepare a bill that would govern the process in Indian courts. Unfortunately, the draft he prepared was found to be inappropriate for application in India so the project was shelved for several years thereafter. Finally, in 1871, the British Parliament sought the services of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen to draft a new bill. On September 1, 1872, the bill was put into effect and became the governing law of all litigation and prosecution in Indian courts.

The Indian Evidence Act governs evidence admissible in both civil and criminal cases. It defines everything from the threshold of determining the relevancy — which is the tendency of a piece evidence to prove or disprove a fact that applies to the matter at hand — to the burden of proof — which is the level of certainty that must be reached to find a verdict. Additionally, specific rules as to the admissibility of testimonial and documentary evidence — i.e., witness accounts and written evidence — are outlined within the Indian Evidence Act. These regulations were to apply to the entirety of the British Indian Empire. Even though India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Act remains in effect there, though Pakistan revoked the Act in 1984.

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