Hearsay: A Basic Explanation for Beginners


Hearsay’s a difficult rule for many students to understand. The idea in itself isn’t difficult to understand. However, the exceptions to Hearsay make it difficult for teams to respond.

A basic explanation is when a phrase or idea gets lost through explanation… For example, the game “whisper down the lane” is a basic level of hearsay. In the game, a message gets whispered to a number of people down a chain. By the end of the chain, the message becomes distorted. This principle of distortion down a chain is why it’s not allowed in court as evidence.

The Definition of Hearsay

The definition of Hearsay (Rule 801) should be memorized by heart.

Rule 801, Federal Rules of Evidence“An out of court statement offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted”

Not only should you remember this rule by heart, you should understand the definition of what the rule says. In theory, the rule says that, a person or witness has offered a phrase that was said outside the court and has tired to use the phrase as evidence to prove the phrase.

The Elements of Hearsay

However, there are three elements you should understand before you use it as an objection.

  1. The statement must have been made outside the courtroom. You may not declare statements said by a previous witness that has testified during the trial as hearsay.
  2. Only human declarants are allowed to make the statement. An animal or machine (including computers) are not capable of making statements in the eyes of the court.
  3. The statement must be used to prove the truth of the statement. If it is used for another purpose, it is not considered hearsay.

The third element is very important because this is where you can fight the objection and where teams have trouble understanding the hearsay objection. Again, if the statement is being used for another purpose other than to prove the truth of the statement, it is not considered hearsay. For example, it’s is allowed when it is being used to show an effect on the listener or the subsequent actions of the person who heard the statement.

Examples of Hearsay and Non-Hearsay Statements

  • “X said the sky was blue” – Hearsay
  • “People didn’t have umbrella’s because X said the sky was blue” – Hearsay used to show the subsequent actions of people. 

Here is another example. In this scenario, a man falls on the floor and breaks his back at a supermarket. He decides to sue the supermarket. At the trial, a woman testifies on the stand…

  • “I told the manager that the floor was slippery”

Is this considered hearsay? No, because the store manager should’ve taken steps to mop the floor or warn customers about the slippery floor. Simply put, the statement is being used to show that it is being offered to show an effect on the listener. The listener in this case is the store manager who was negligent when the woman told him that the floor was slippery but didn’t fix the problem.

Is there more?

Of course there is more to the rule and the exceptions that are available. This is what makes the  rule complicated for most teams. Since this is a basic explanation for beginners, we will go into more of the exceptions in our in-depth guide.