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An analysis of the regulatory environment governing hearsay electronic evidence in South Africa: Suggestions for reform – Part One

Lee Swales


The purpose of this two-part article is to examine the regulatory  environment governing hearsay electronic evidence in South Africa – with a view to providing clear, practical suggestions for regulatory reform in the context of the South African Law Reform Commission's most recent Discussion Paper on electronic evidence. Technology has become an indispensable part of modern life. In particular, the Internet has facilitated new forms of business enterprise, and shifted basic communication norms. From a legal perspective, technology has presented several novel challenges for courts and legal practitioners to deal with – one of these key challenges relates to electronic evidence and in particular the application of the hearsay rules to the digital environment. The South African Law Reform Commission has identified the application of the hearsay rule as one of the core concerns with regard to electronic evidence, and certain academic analysis has revealed inefficiency in the current legal position which may involve multiple sources of law. Moreover, the Law Society of South Africa has stated that there is some confusion amongst members of the profession in relation to hearsay as it applies to electronic evidence.
With the pervasive and burgeoning nature of technology, and with the Internet in mind, it is natural to assume that electronic evidence will be relevant in most forms of legal proceedings in future, and hearsay electronic evidence in particular will play an increasingly important role in years to come. Consequently, part one of this article will consider the key definitional concept in relation to electronic evidence – data messages - and examine whether the definition should be revised. In addition, part one of this article will answer two further critical questions posed by the South African Law Reform Commission in relation to data messages and hearsay evidence, namely: should a data message constitute hearsay? And, how should one distinguish between documentary evidence and real evidence in the context of data messages?

Keywords: Electronic evidence; data messages; ECT Act; law of evidence; South African Law Reform Commission; technology and law.
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