What is Relevant?
What is relevant? It is not a trick question or theoretical inquiry. It is a straightforward question that goes to the heart of any piece of evidence. In the legal profession, determining what is relevant is crucial. For evidentiary purposes, it is one of the pillars of figuring out what evidence to present and what materials and testimony actually get into evidence.
Indeed, the Federal Rules of Evidence prescribe a test to determine what evidence is relevant. Specifically, relevant evidence is determined as follows:
Evidence is relevant if:
(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and
(b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.
Fed. R. Evid. 401.
Further, the Federal Rule of Evidence 402 goes a step further and makes clear that “[i]rrelevant evidence is not admissible.” Fed. R. Evid. 402.
With this backdrop, what is relevant becomes slightly clearer. With that said, attorneys argue and file motions often about the relevancy of a particular piece of evidence. As you can probably tell, determining what is relevant is heavily dependent on the situation. Put another way, just because a piece of evidence is relevant in one case does not necessarily mean it is relevant in another and vice versa.
One of the reasons why the relevancy of evidence is so essential to parse out during a litigation is because attorneys want to prevent irrelevant and/or unfairly prejudicial evidence being presented to a jury. To that end, even relevant evidence may be excluded on some occasions. Federal Rule of Evidence 403 provides guidance on when relevant evidence may be excluded. Rule 403 states “[t]he court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed. R. Evid. 403. In addition to what dangers Rule 403 aims to combat, a key part of Rule 403 is that relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is “substantially outweighed” by the dangers listed in Rule 403. As you can likely suspect, determining if the evidence’s probative value is “substantially outweighed” by any of the aforementioned dangers is also a point of contention.
In brief, while what is relevant is not a trick question, it is a nuanced question. Figuring out what is relevant, what is irrelevant and what relevant evidence may be excluded are issues in virtually every lawsuit. As such, determining what is relevant is a vital step in any case.