Definition of Primary & Secondary Evidence

Written by kate fogle
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Definition of Primary & Secondary Evidence
The original is real ink on real paper. (Image by, courtesy of ChristianFierro)

Primary evidence and secondary evidence are categories used to describe the nature of a piece of evidence. While primary evidence is preferred, secondary evidence is acceptable in some circumstances.

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Evidence Defined

FindLaw for Legal Professionals defines evidence as "something that furnishes or tends to furnish proof." The judge or jury uses evidence to figure out what really happened in a case.

Primary Evidence

According to West's Encyclopedia of American Law, primary evidence is "an authentic document or item that is offered as proof in a lawsuit, as contrasted with a copy of, or substitute for, the original."

Secondary Evidence

West's says, "secondary evidence is evidence that has been reproduced from an original document or substituted for an original item." A photocopy of an original document and a model of a crime scene are examples of secondary evidence.

Best Evidence Rule

Primary evidence is sometimes called "best evidence." The Federal Rules of Evidence require an original to prove the content of a document, photograph or recording, but will allow a copy in some circumstances. This requirement is called the best evidence rule.


Historically, courts considered duplicates of documents unreliable because they were copied by hand. After modern technology improved the reliability of copies and models, courts began to regularly allow secondary evidence.

Definition of Primary & Secondary Evidence
Hand-written copies may be unreliable. (Image by, courtesy of Kevin Walsh)

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