Define: Dying Declaration

Dying Declaration
Dying Declaration
Quick Summary of Dying Declaration

A dying declaration is a statement made by a person who believes they are on the verge of death, regarding the cause or circumstances of their impending death. This statement is typically admitted as evidence in legal proceedings, particularly in criminal cases, even though it would normally be considered hearsay. Courts allow dying declarations because they are considered to carry a high degree of reliability, given that individuals facing imminent death are unlikely to lie or fabricate information. However, for a dying declaration to be admissible, the declarant must have had a belief in their impending death at the time of making the statement, and the statement must concern the cause or circumstances of their death. Dying declarations serve as exceptions to the general rule against hearsay evidence and are often given significant weight in legal proceedings.

What is the dictionary definition of Dying Declaration?
Dictionary Definition of Dying Declaration

n. the statement of a mortally injured person who is aware he/she is about to die, telling who caused the injury and possibly the circumstances (“Frankie shot me”). Although hearsay is admissible since the dead person cannot testify in person, it is admissible on the theory that a dying person has no reason not to tell the truth.

Full Definition Of Dying Declaration

Under common law, a statement made by a person who has been mortally wounded may be admissible as evidence during a trial for his murder or manslaughter, even if it is hearsay. That is, if X told Y that he, X, was stabbed by Z, then Y might be able to adduce evidence of X’s statement in court. Evidence of an out-of-court statement such as this would normally not be admissible at all (Admissibility of Evidence). The rationale for admitting a dying declaration is that it is assumed that a person who is dying and knows this to be the case is unlikely to lie.

To be admissible, the declaration must be made by a person who has a ‘settled, hopeless expectation of death’ (R v. Woodcock (1789)). The declaration will not be admissible if it can be shown that the victim harboured even a slight hope of recovery (R v. Jenkins (1869)), but the victim need not be within moments of expiring when he makes the statement (R v. Bernadotti (1869)).

When the Criminal Justice Act (2003) comes fully into force (it was not in force at the time of writing), the law on dying declarations will become obsolete. s. 116(2)(a) provides that any statement, including an oral statement, made by a person who dies before the trial is admissible.


The concept of a dying declaration is an essential component within the realm of evidentiary law, particularly in criminal cases. Rooted deeply in common law traditions, the dying declaration is an exception to the hearsay rule, allowing statements made by a person who believes they are about to die, and subsequently does, to be admissible in court. This legal overview will explore the foundations, application, and implications of dying declarations in British legal context, examining relevant case law, statutory provisions, and comparative perspectives.

Historical Context

The principle of the dying declaration originates from the maxim “nemo moriturus praesumitur mentiri,” which translates to “no one on the verge of death is presumed to lie.” This maxim reflects the belief that a person facing imminent death would be unlikely to falsify their last statements, thus providing a guarantee of truthfulness that justifies an exception to the hearsay rule. The earliest recorded instances of the use of dying declarations date back to medieval English law, where such statements were admitted as evidence in homicide cases.

Legal Foundation

In British law, the dying declaration is recognized under common law and is particularly pertinent in cases of homicide. The admissibility of a dying declaration is predicated on the belief that it is made in extremis, under the solemnity and belief of impending death. The foundational case of R v. Woodcock (1789) established the conditions under which a dying declaration would be admissible, setting a precedent that has influenced subsequent legal developments.

Conditions for Admissibility

For a dying declaration to be admissible, several conditions must be met:

  • Imminence of Death: The declarant must believe that their death is imminent. This belief is a critical element, as it underpins the presumption of truthfulness. The courts examine the circumstances to determine if the declarant had a settled, hopeless expectation of death.
  • Causation by the Accused: The declaration must relate to the cause of the declarant’s death and, generally, the identity of the assailant. It should provide direct or circumstantial evidence pointing to the person responsible for the declarant’s impending death.
  • Unavailability of the Declarant: Naturally, the declarant must have died, as the essence of a dying declaration is that it is a statement made by someone who is no longer available to testify.

Legal Framework and Case Law

R v. Woodcock (1789)

The case of R v. Woodcock is a cornerstone in the development of the legal doctrine surrounding dying declarations. Here, the court established that for a declaration to be admitted, it must be made under the solemn belief of impending death. The declarant in this case had made statements implicating her husband in her poisoning, which were admitted as evidence, given her condition and belief in her imminent death.

R v. Perry (1909)

In R v. Perry, the court further clarified the principles governing dying declarations. The declarant, in this case, had sustained fatal injuries and made a statement identifying her attacker. The court emphasized the importance of the declarant’s belief in their imminent death, noting that a mere possibility of recovery would render the declaration inadmissible. The court’s decision reinforced the necessity of a settled expectation of death for the admissibility of such statements.

R v. Jenkins (2004)

R v. Jenkins provided a modern interpretation of the principles underlying dying declarations. The case involved a victim of a stabbing who made a statement identifying his attacker while receiving medical treatment. Despite surviving for a short period after making the statement, the court admitted the declaration, recognizing that the victim had a settled expectation of death at the time of the statement. This case illustrates the court’s willingness to adapt the traditional principles to contemporary contexts while maintaining the core requirements.

Statutory Provisions and Modern Applications

While the common law provides the foundational principles for dying declarations, statutory law also plays a role in shaping their application. The Criminal Justice Act 2003, particularly under Sections 114 to 118, addresses hearsay evidence in criminal proceedings, providing a statutory framework for exceptions, including dying declarations.

Criminal Justice Act 2003

The Act allows for greater flexibility in the admissibility of hearsay evidence, recognizing the necessity of certain exceptions in the interest of justice. Section 116 specifically addresses the admissibility of statements made by unavailable witnesses, which can encompass dying declarations. The Act requires that the statement be made in circumstances that would make it reliable, thus aligning with the traditional common law requirements.

Comparative Perspectives

United States

In the United States, the Federal Rules of Evidence, specifically Rule 804(b)(2), address dying declarations, allowing them as an exception to hearsay in both civil and criminal cases. This broader application contrasts with the more restrictive British approach, where dying declarations are primarily relevant in homicide cases. The rationale remains consistent, emphasizing the reliability of statements made under the belief of impending death.

India

Indian law, heavily influenced by British common law, also recognizes dying declarations under Section 32(1) of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. The Indian legal system, however, places significant emphasis on the declarant’s belief in impending death, often scrutinizing the surrounding circumstances rigorously to ensure the reliability of the statement.

Evidentiary Value and Judicial Scrutiny

The evidentiary value of dying declarations is significant, often serving as crucial pieces of evidence in homicide cases. However, their admission is subject to strict judicial scrutiny to prevent potential misuse. Courts examine the circumstances under which the declaration was made, the declarant’s mental state, and the consistency of the statement with other evidence presented.

Corroboration and Weight

While a dying declaration can be compelling, courts often seek corroboration from additional evidence. This approach ensures that the declaration is not the sole basis for a conviction, thereby mitigating the risk of wrongful convictions. The weight given to a dying declaration depends on its coherence, the declarant’s credibility, and its alignment with the overall evidence.

Judicial Directions

Judges typically provide clear directions to juries regarding the treatment of dying declarations. These directions emphasize the need to consider the declaration’s reliability, the context of its making, and any corroborating evidence. Judicial guidance helps juries navigate the complexities of assessing such statements and their impact on the overall case.

Challenges and Criticisms

Despite their utility, dying declarations are not without challenges and criticisms. The primary concern revolves around the potential for inaccuracies or fabrications, even in the face of death. Critics argue that the assumption of inherent truthfulness may not always hold, particularly in cases where the declarant might have motivations to mislead or where their mental state is compromised.

Psychological Factors

Psychological research suggests that the human mind under extreme stress, such as the anticipation of death, might not always function optimally. Memories can be distorted, and perceptions altered, raising questions about the absolute reliability of dying declarations. This aspect underscores the importance of corroborating such statements with other evidence.

Legal Reforms

The evolving nature of legal standards necessitates periodic reassessment of the principles governing dying declarations. Legal reforms could focus on refining the criteria for admissibility, enhancing judicial training on evaluating such evidence, and promoting research into the psychological aspects of declarations made under duress.

Conclusion

The concept of a dying declaration remains a pivotal exception to the hearsay rule within British law, rooted in centuries of common law tradition and bolstered by statutory provisions. Its application, while primarily in homicide cases, underscores the legal system’s commitment to ensuring justice by admitting reliable statements made under the solemn belief of impending death. However, the inherent challenges and criticisms highlight the need for continual scrutiny and potential reforms to balance the principles of justice, fairness, and reliability. As the legal landscape evolves, the dying declaration will undoubtedly remain a critical area of evidentiary law, reflecting the enduring interplay between legal tradition and contemporary judicial practice.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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