Sir James Fitzjames Stephen’s Indian Evidence Act of 1872: On the Verge of Abolition in Singapore?

Publication Type

Conference Paper

Publication Date



Sir James Fitzjames Stephen’s Indian Evidence Act of 1872 was a revolutionary piece of work with respect to its conceptualisation of relevance and admissibility – essentially, it simplified the common law framework and statutorily defined what was relevant and admissible and obviated the need to ask what was not relevant or what was not admissible. It was so influential that a number of common law jurisdictions adopted the legislation not long after its enactment; more than a hundred years later, many of them remain content to retain a majority of its relevancy provisions in their original form. In Singapore’s case, however, its courts have struggled to find the right balance between being faithful to its Evidence Act and following modern common law developments that were or are incompatible with the statute. Singapore’s legislature has had this struggle as well: this was demonstrated perhaps most clearly in the 2012 amendments, which effectively turned the relevance and admissibility framework on its head by giving judges the power to outflank the Evidence Act. In this paper I will show why the Evidence Act is better off repealed, or better yet completely redesigned. It has become more incoherent than before, exacerbated by a number of factors: Singapore has long abolished trial-by-jury; the statute continues to expressly prohibit the incorporation of common law jurisprudence that is inconsistent with it (but this has not stopped the courts from ignoring this prohibition); and the statute continues to apply indiscriminately to civil and criminal proceedings. The harsh lessons to be learned from the Singapore experience will hopefully be useful to other common law jurisdictions that still retain Stephen’s Evidence Act but have aspirations to reform it.


Asian Studies | Evidence | Indian and Aboriginal Law

Research Areas

Law, Society and Governance


Asian Law Institute 11th Conference, Kuala Lumpur, 28-29 May 2014

City or Country

Kuala Lumpur

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