"Character evidence" is any proof that is presented in order to establish the personality, psychological state, attitude, or general capacity of an individual to engage in particular behaviour. It can take a number of forms. Character may be established circumstantially - for example, by proving the particular acts of a person on other occasions. This can be done through the testimony of witnesses to those events, through admissions by the person whose character is being explored, through certificates proving his criminal convictions, or in other ways. Character can also be proved compendiously through statements of opinion ("In my view Joan is dishonest") or by proof of reputation ("Joan’s reputation in the community for honesty is poor"). "Character" in its broader sense can even be proved through expert opinion ("Simon is a sexual psychopath").
Not all of these kinds of evidence will be admissible in all cases. Indeed, the rules of evidence are extremely guarded about the admission of character evidence. This kind of evidence often presents serious risk of prejudice and can create distracting and time-consuming side issues; moreover, where the character of a person is not a matter directly in issue in a proceeding,1there is often insecurity about its relevance and true probative value.
Because of the shifting importance of these considerations, character evidence rules vary depending on whether the evidence is being presented in a criminal or a civil case, or whether it relates to a party or a non-party. They vary, as well, depending on whether the character evidence is being adduced on a primarily material issue (such as what happened) or a secondarily material issue (such as to challenge the credibility of a witness). In criminal cases, the rules vary depending upon whether it is the accused or the Crown calling the evidence. This chapter deals solely with character evidence that is primarily material, in the sense that it is being introduced as circumstantial evidence to assist in determining what happened.2
The relevance of character evidence is often controversial because, by its very nature, it is general information about a person that is being presented for the purposes of leading to specific conclusions about behaviour on a particular occasion. Its probative value often...