Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prior consistent statement not admitted for truth of contents

R v DB, 2013 ONCA 578 makes clear that when a prior consistent statement is admitted to refuse an allegation of recent fabrication such admission is not to all proof of the truth of the contents of the prior consistent statement:

[37]       A prior consistent statement that is admissible to rebut an allegation of recent fabrication is not admitted to prove the truth of its contents. Rather, it neutralizes the challenge or allegation of recent fabrication. The evidence of the prior consistent statement is used to establish that the challenge is in error, not to show that the statement is true or that the witness is likely telling the truth because they said the same thing before. In this sense, the admission of the prior consistent statement may impact positively on the witness's credibility insofar as admission of the statement removes a motive of fabrication. As Bastarache J. stated on behalf of the Supreme Court of Canada in Stirling, at para. 7:

However, a prior consistent statement that is admitted to rebut the suggestion of recent fabrication continues to lack any probative value beyond showing that the witness's story did not change as a result of a new motive to fabricate. Importantly, it is impermissible to assume that because a witness has made the same statement in the past, he or she is more likely to be telling the truth, and any admitted prior consistent statements should not be assessed for the truth of their contents. 

[38]       The Hon. Justice David Paciocco describes the operation of the recent fabrication exception in his aforementioned article as follows, at p. 191:

"Recent fabrication" is a rebuttal rule.  If at the end of the case the decision-maker believes the prior consistent statement to have been made, it will neutralize the challenge to the litigant's case without in any way adding corroboration, confirmation, or affirmative weight to the credibility or reliability of the witness who was challenged.  Their evidence remains in the state it was before the failed "recent fabrication" challenge.

Judges must therefore be cautious to avoid language which suggests they are treating the prior consistent statement as adding to the credibility of the witness.  Where judges do use terms such as "supports" or "bolsters" or "strengthens", so long as it is clear from their decision as a whole that they are simply suggesting that the evidence of the witness is "supported" or "bolstered" or "strengthened" in the limited sense that the prior consistent statement shows their evidence to be more believable than if the "recent fabrication" challenge went unanswered, there will be no error.  If the comments go farther and imply that the prior consistent statement adds affirmatively to the credibility of the witness, the judge will fall into error.

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